Friday 26 September 2014

Ding-dong doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

It’s impossible to change the past; to change the future can be even harder.

Physically, death is certain; spiritually, certainty is death.

A minister is something of a jack-of-all-trades – without the skills.

Yes, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14; cf. Galatians 3:27). Just don’t expect him to fit, being at once too large and too tight for comfort.

Jesus said, “Where two are three are gathered together in my name, there is the C of E in 50 years.”

How can anyone read the Bible without a deep and dreadful sense of discombobulation? I’m afraid you’ll have to ask an inerrantist. The Bible is like the Great Boyg in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt – a wild, sprawling, inscrutable, immovable, monster – except that the Boyg, unlike the Bible, finally capitulates.

As ministers merely lead worship, on retirement I was looking forward to actually worshipping. The transition, however, has not been easy. I still often feel like a liturgical inspector and homiletical critic. So-so sermons I expected, but who’d have thought you could screw up a eucharist? Hey- ho, I suspect that even in heaven I’ll be fidgeting in my seat, harrumphing at the elders and angels, and checking my watch, waiting for the service to end. Except that it won’t, will it? Still, for music, at least, there’ll be Handel, not (Lord, have mercy!) Hillsong.

Last Sunday in church we sang a song which went: “Worthy is the Lamb x 4 / Holy is the Lamb x 4 / Precious is … / Praises to … / Glory to … / Jesus is …” So addled was my brain when we reached the 24th line that I continued silently singing: “Little … / Woolly … / Grazing… / Roasted … / Tender … / Mint-sauced …”

Faith can be a wonderful blessing, and a terrible burden; something to be enjoyed, and something to be endured. Alas, some churches are like banks: in profit you are good for business, but in loss you are bad for morale in their lament-free zones.

Whenever I turn to Augustine’s Confessions, I always feel slightly embarrassed – an appropriate disposition, I think, for what is, after all, a love letter.

What was God doing before he created the world? Yes, “preparing Hell for people who pry into mysteries” is a “frivolous retort”; rather, as Augustine continues, the question itself is unintelligible, based on the failure to realise that time, with its before and after, only comes into existence with creation (Confessions, XI, 12-13). Which is true, but prevaricating. Look at the world: it’s a shambles. What was God doing before he created the world? Surely getting drunk.

Which reminds me … My dad was an eminent architect, a VIP in the Raymond Loewy Corporation, specialising in department stores. He would often take clients to lunch, including liquid, of course, which for my father meant a very dry gin martini – or two … Then back to the drafting board. Which leads me to advise: check your life insurance policy before shopping at Lord and Taylor.

In a coffee shop, observing a family of five, each absorbed in their iPhone or iPad (or whatever the fuck they’re called), an old friend of mine opined, “The end of civilisation.” Were he not Welsh, I would have corrected him: “You’re over 40 years too late. The end of civilisation occurred in 1973 – with the advent of the Designated Hitter.”

And now baseball players in camouflage jerseys: “You will see ‘The Awful Horror’ standing in the place where he should not be” (Mark 13:14). Truly, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned” (Yeats, “The Second Coming”).

Speaking of soldiers … If it is trained like a soldier, dresses like a soldier, fights wars (on crime, drugs, etc.) like a soldier, and then pisses on protest like a soldier, it’s probably a soldier. As for any charm offensive by the Ministry of Truth on the militarization of so-called “peace” officers, it’s like – what’s the expression? – “putting lipstick on a pig”.

Still on point: it’s good to see American police forces honouring their European roots – as municipal armies of nascent, born-to-kill nation-states.

Fox News is not the channel of hate and lies, it is the channel of capital – but nothing sells like hate and lies. Is the salvation of Fox News in doubt? Of course not: its damnation is certain.

What is the visible essence of sin? Violence. The first biblical narrative set in our world is the story of violence, murder. What is the visible essence of sinlessness? Nonviolence. The sinlessness of Jesus is evident precisely in the narrative of his nonviolence, culminating in his murder. Interestingly, sinlessness and nonviolence are both negatives, elements (you might say) of an apophatic Christology.

Forget the inconclusive proof-texting, the acrimonious theological jousting, and the philosophical argy-bargy, the best way to disabuse the hard-core Calvinist of the decretum horribilis is parenthood. Only a devil could look into the eyes of his child and think, “Precious, you might, in fact, be damned.” Of course, the condition of the Arminian is little better: “Honey, you might yet be damned.”

“The Lord God said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s home, and go to a land that I am going to show you. I will give you many descendants, and they will become a great nation. I will bless you and make your name famous, so that you will be a blessing.’ And Abram said, ‘Sounds like a plan.’ And the Lord God said, ‘Plan C, actually, Abe. And if it doesn’t work out, meh: the alphabet is very long’” (Genesis 12:1ff., Original Autograph).

Speaking of plans … You know the old saying, “What makes God laugh? Tell him your plans”? Well, you know what makes me laugh? God telling us his plans. I mean, you gotta be kidding.

The results of fashionable facial cosmetic surgery – I know I’ve seen that look somewhere before … That’s it! – some of Picasso’s cubist portraits, say, The Weeping Woman. Aesthetic refigurement reiterated as plastic disfigurement.

So a 9-year-old girl accidently kills her shooting instructor while being shown how to fire an Uzi. I guess either the complementarians are right – bullets for boys, Barbies for girls – or we’ve got to start teaching all our kids how to use assault weapons by the age of 6.

Suggesting that authentic presidential leadership requires "play acting sometimes", David Usborne would have Obama "Look more outraged" about the ISIS atrocities; "It will make us feel better," he avers (4 September). Ah, yes, like during those golden global years of the ab fab Ronald Reagan. —Unpublished letter to the British daily the i

A masked executioner – he is horrifying and detestable. That is why, in our mind’s eye, we must unmask him, envisage him, lest fear and hatred overwhelm us, and in demonising him we dehumanise ourselves and add to the wreckage of atrocity.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

The psalms and the blues: a little help from James Baldwin

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin makes a characteristically perceptive and acerbic comment about the tradition of African American songs:
White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them – sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defencelessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been “down the line”, as the song puts it, know what this music is about. I think it was Big Bill Broonzy who used to sing, "I Feel So Good." … White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes.
A similar misunderstanding lies beneath the current academic hypersensitivity to the morality of the psalms. If we think the happy psalms are merely happy and the sad psalms are merely sad, then we'll also assume that the psalms of vengeance are merely immoral and vindictive, or that psalms of conquest are mere glorifications of military violence – without seeing the whole tragic history that gives rise to such outrageously tenacious expressions of faith. Perhaps we'd have a better ear for the psalms if we remembered that they are the precursors not so much of Victorian hymnody as of the spirituals and the blues. One catches the true spirit of the psalter in the old African American song:
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Glory hallelujah!

Saturday 20 September 2014

Church attendance manual (3): "Please be seated"

When attending church, it is important to understand that certain seemingly familiar liturgical instructions can have different shades of meaning in different traditions. The instruction, please be seated, is one of the most common yet also most easily understood of all liturgical formulae. You will be spared a great deal of confusion and embarrassment if you observe these guidelines when attending a service of worship in one of the following liturgical settings. Please be seated means:

Mainline protestant
Please stop standing and sit down.

Please stop kneeling and sit up.

Please stop lying on the floor and return to your seats.

Please come down from the rafters and return to your seats.

Tent revival
Now that you all have Jesus in your hearts, you may leave the altar and return to your seats.

Once you've stopped chatting among yourselves, please feel free to find a seat. Whenever you're ready, folks, whenever you're ready...

A cruel joke (there are no seats).

Fresh expressions
An ironic joke (there are nothing but seats).

Oops. I can't believe I just said that out loud.

What an insensitive thing to say. Words like this simply perpetuate cultural stereotypes and the hegemony of able-bodied discourse. The congregation's constant uncertainty about whether to stand or sit is a small price to pay for our moral superiority.
Inner city mission
For pity's sake, Johnno, could you please stop heckling the preacher and sit down!

Rural parish
You can both sit down now.

School chapel
That's my final warning, boys.

Sunday school
Oh hell – they're starting to riot – oh hell – I've completely lost control

Thursday 18 September 2014

Lord of the loo: a sermon on Graham Greene

A sermon by Kim Fabricius
Without doubt, one of the greatest 20th century novelists writing in English was Graham Greene. He was also one of the most popular: his prose was lucid, his plots were gripping, and as a “writer who happened to be Catholic” (he hated the term “Catholic writer”), he wrote compellingly about the human condition with theological insight as well as psychological depth, exploring the perennial themes of good and evil, sin and salvation, faith and doubt.

One of my favourite Greene novels is Monsignor Quixote, published in 1982 (I read it during my first month as a minister). Called “a fable for our times”, it’s an affectionate pastiche of Cervantes’ 17th-century masterpiece Don Quixote. It describes the exploits of a small-town priest, unexpectedly made a monsignor by the Pope (“what strange stirring of the Holy Spirit,” observes his resentful bishop), as he travels around Spain in his Seat 600, tilting at windmills, accompanied by his ex-mayor friend nicknamed “Sancho” (what else!), who happens to be a communist. As you might imagine, their conversations are, well, interesting, as the churchman and the atheist not only argue but are forced to re-examine their own beliefs.

One of the funniest scenes in the novel finds Father Quixote in a pub toilet with a man who wants to make his confession. “Never before had he heard a confession in such surroundings. He had always been seated in that box like a coffin … [So] It was almost automatically that he took refuge in the only box available and sat down on a closed lavatory.” It turns out that the man is an undertaker who has stolen the brass handles off the coffin in which he had buried a priest that morning.

“Father Quixote thought: How many times I have felt guilty as he does without knowing why. Sometimes he envied the certitude of those who were able to lay down clear rules.… Himself he lived in a mist, unable to see a path, stumbling.… He said, ‘Don’t worry about such little things. Go home and have a good sleep. Perhaps you have stolen.… Do you think God cares so much about such a small thing like that? He has created a universe.… You have stolen two brass handles – don’t feel so important. Say you are sorry for your pride and go home.’”

Then the priest goes back to the bar. “What on earth have you been up to?” asks Sancho. “Practicing my profession,” Quixote replies. “In a lavatory?” “In a lavatory, in a prison, in a church. What’s the difference?”

Good question: What’s the difference? Is there any? Is a confessional holier than a khazi? What, indeed, is “holiness”?

In the Bible, one opposite of holy is “unclean” – like a lavatory. The Pharisees in particular were sticklers about “purity”, moral as well as ritual. They had a defensive notion of sanctity: pollution is contagious. Contact with the visibly sick and the obviously immoral – with lepers, for example, or “tax-collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19) – no way! Don’t touch, don’t talk, keep your distance! Hence the fastidiousness and the fearfulness of their faith. Jesus, by contrast, had an offensive notion of sanctity: it is not stain or sin but goodness – but grace – that is catching. Hence the robustness and the fearlessness of his own faith.

The Reformer Marin Luther also had this bold and feisty faith. He once wrote to an uptight upright colleague (Philip Melanchton): “Sometimes it is necessary to drink a little more, play, joke, even commit sin in defiance and contempt of the devil, in order not to give him the opportunity to make us scrupulous about small things.” Yet does not being “scrupulous about small things” – Father Quixote’s “little thing[s]” – doesn’t this sum-up the nit-picking piety of so much church culture, so fussy, prudish, mischiefless, so downright boring – and so obstructive to mission? You’ve heard of “born-again” Christianity: this is “yawn-again” Christianity.

What is holiness? Can God be found in a lavatory? How interesting that Luther claimed that his own theological breakthrough – justification by faith alone – came to him – you guessed it – in the WC! God is Lord – Lord of the loo too!

Perhaps, then, punctilious notions of purity and probity have little to do with real holiness, the offensive holiness of Jesus. Perhaps in focussing on little sins we miss the big ones, the weightier matters of justice, the weightiest matter of grace. Perhaps such a focus leads to defensive strategies of exclusion, as contemporary Pharisees police the borders of the church to keep out “the unclean” and “the unsound”. Perhaps what we often take to be beyond the moral or doctrinal pale has less to do with God’s righteousness and more to do with our own pathologies of rectitude. Indeed one reviewer of Monsignor Quixote (Robert Towers) suggests that “The rejection of [all] dogmatic authority … is the presiding theme of the book.” Not quite: for ultimately the novel’s “presiding theme” is the kindness of God, incarnate in weakness and doubt, in this hapless little priest, yet counter-intuitively triumphant over the malice and corruption of Grand Inquisitors in church and state alike.

Monsignor Quixote will die from wounds received when, shot at by two Guardia, his little Seat crashes. Yet his atheist friend will muse that “the love he had begun to feel for Father Quixote seemed now to live in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long he wondered, with a kind of fear …?” With a kind of faith, be it the size of a mustard seed, we may answer: forever. For God is love, incarnate in Christ, stronger than death, and, yes, eternal.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Christian discipleship and institutions: three types

We've been discussing the relation between community and institution in my ecclesiology class. In this week's class I tried to summarise the issues by explaining the way institutions can be more or less aligned with the teaching of Christ – here's a 15-minute audio snippet from the lecture:
Following this account of "institutional conversion", I suggested three different types of Christian discipleship in relation to institutions:

1. Conversion through participation: attempting to align an institution more closely with the teaching of the gospel. Generally this is possible where the founding purpose of an institution was derived from the gospel. Examples: hospitals, schools, law, welfare agencies (as explained in the audio snippet above) – in fact, most major Western social institutions.

2. Contradiction through participation: working within an institution in a way that reveals the contradiction between the gospel and the values of that institution. Generally this is necessary where the founding purpose of an institution directly contradicts the teaching of the gospel. Examples: a Christian working in a casino cannot seek to align that institution to the gospel, but can embody the teaching of Christ through a life that abstains completely from gambling and the glorification of luck. Such a life bears witness to the moral world of the gospel in contradiction to the moral world of the institution. I know of pacifist Christians who serve as military chaplains in the same spirit: they seek to serve their military institution faithfully in a way that nevertheless bears witness to the contradictory values of the gospel.

3. Contradiction through coercion: using social power to coerce an institution into altering its aims or practices; here the gospel is revealed as judgment on an institution and its goals. Examples: the use of parliamentary processes in the abolition of slavery in England; or current organisations like Not for Sale and Stop the Traffik, which use combined strategies of law, lobbying, education, and corporate support to effect social change. In such cases, Christians make use of some social institutions (law, media, etc) in an attempt to constrain, or even to dismantle completely, an institution that is believed to be the cause of unequivocal social harm.

OK, I know this schematic outline is far from perfect, and I know that actual institutions are more complicated, both in their goals and in their structures, than this outline suggests. But without some differentiated account of institutions and their relationship to the Christian community, I don't see how we can even begin to reflect responsibly on Christian vocation in our world. I've come to believe that sweeping theological dismissals of institutions are a menace to Christian discipleship.

Friday 12 September 2014

But what about revolution? more notes on Christianity and society

1. Injustice is bad. Anarchy is worse.

2. Revolution may be divided into two main types. Fast Revolution refers to the overthrow of political authority by a popular movement. Slow Revolution refers to the deep transformation of social institutions from within. The first type of revolution can occur overnight while the second occurs over several generations.

3. It is not advisable for any social theory to stipulate the precise conditions under which Fast Revolution would be justified. When dealing with exceptions to the rule, it is best not to try to regulate them within the bounds of a theory. However, a Christian theory of society ought to have a presumptive preference for Slow Revolution over Fast Revolution, and for stability over disorder, even while allowing that Fast Revolution might be legitimate in certain exceptional circumstances.

4. Fast Revolution may further be divided into two types: a popular revolt against political authority, and the overthrow of a bad ruler by subordinate lawful authorities. The first is an act of rebellion, the second an act of political responsibility. Calvin allowed for the second type – the defeat of tyranny through, and for the sake of, law. But he believed the first type is impermissible since lawlessness is an even greater evil than injustice. Christians, he noted, are able to live faithfully within many different kinds of social orders, including very unjust ones.

5. For the most part, Christianity has been a "revolutionary" force in society only in the sense of a Slow Revolution. The Christian message has the capacity to transform a society through the gradual reform of human relationships and institutions over many successive generations.

6. Historically, Slow Revolution has proved much more lastingly transformative than popular movements of Fast Revolution. In the great modern revolutionary movements, an initial period of terror and bloodshed is generally followed by a return to pre-revolutionary structures with minor modifications. As Crane Brinton has said of the French Revolution, "The blood of the martyrs seems hardly necessary to establish decimal coinage" (Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution).

7. Distinct from all these types of revolution is civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is not rebellion against political authority but an act of political responsibility in which some particular law is broken for the sake of another (more basic or more important) law, or for the sake of some widely shared value in a society. Christians have a long and illustrious history of civil disobedience. Martyrdom involved the dual act of submission to lawful authority (i.e. submitting to a penal sentence) and disobedience to the same authority (i.e. refusing to participate in the imperial cult). Even such an extreme form of civil disobedience was carried out on behalf of, and not against, the existing social order.

8. Where Christians have refused to participate in certain institutions, they have done so not in a spirit of rebellion but as a form of deeper social solidarity. Early hellenistic critics claimed that Christians posed a threat to the social order because of their refusal to serve in the army. Origen replied: "We help the emperor in his extremities by our prayers and intercessions more effectively than do the soldiers…. In this way we overcome the real disturbers of the peace, the demons. Thus we fight for the emperor more than the others, though we do not fight with him, nor at his command" (Origen, Contra Celsum).

9. Thus throughout its history the church has proved to be an "unreliable ally" in every social order (Karl Barth). As civilisations rise and grow old and eventually sink into ruin and decay, the Christian community renews itself continually through its gospel of a transcendent order of righteousness and peace. 

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Migrant Jesus, at the border

A hymn by Kim

(Tune: Drakes Broughton)

Migrant Jesus, at the border,
     refugee of fear and hate,
you’re a threat to law and order,
     nightmare of the nation-state.

Child of Israel, fleeing soldiers,
     from the Jordan to the Nile,
were your parents passport-holders,
     were you welcomed with a smile?

Home from Egypt, Spirit-breathing,
     in the towns of Galilee,
how you had the people seething
     when you preached the Jubilee.

At the margins, far from centre,
     where you met the ostracised,
even friends weren’t keen to enter
     conversations that you prized.

Ease our fears, forgive our hatred
     of the other and the odd;
help us see the single-sacred:   
     face of stranger – face of God.

Migrant Jesus, at the border –
     Dover Beach or Rio Grande –
Greetings, sister! Welcome, brother!
      Make this place your promised land.

Friday 5 September 2014

Politics, society, and institutions: a theological outline

OK, polemics aside for a moment, the outline below is an attempt to state my point of view as clearly and concisely as I can, organised around some key doctrinal themes:

Creation: The human person is created in the image and likeness of God after the pattern of Christ, the human prototype. By nature the human being stretches beyond itself in love towards God and the neighbour. Human nature was created not yet in perfection but with the capacity to attain the eschatological perfection of a society ordered wholly by love.

Fall: Only the height of our createdness can measure of the depth of our fall. Created with a capacity to love God, the fallen human being projects transcendent longing on to worldly objects. When this is done individually it leads to spiritual enslavement. When it is done collectively – when a whole social order projects transcendent longing on to some common object – then the monsters of idolatry appear on the stage of world history, and uncontrollable enslaving powers are unleashed.

Sin: The essential form of sin, therefore, is idolatry; and the fruit of idolatry is slavery. The first is a perversion of our capacity to love God; the second is a perversion of our capacity to love the neighbour.

Society: In every social order, one can glimpse something of the majestic createdness and abysmal fallenness of human nature. The problem of any given social order lies not in specific structural and institutional arrangements. The problem lies in the inscrutable depths of the disordered human heart. That is why the noblest revolutionary turns overnight into the bloodiest tyrant. It is why the most equitable social and economic arrangements are so quickly exploited by a mysterious and insatiable greed. It is why social orders prove mysteriously insusceptible to rational planning and management.

Politics: The sole rationale for politics is original sin. The principal aim of political order is not to produce justice but to restrain injustice; not to cultivate the spirit of the law but to enforce the rule of law; not to create love but to set limits to self-interest; not to bring peace but to constrain the inevitable tendencies of the human heart towards violence and war. Politics cannot bring Christ to earth. It is enough if it succeeds in holding Antichrist at bay. But while the rationale for politics is original sin, the measure of politics is eschatology. The perfect eschatological society stands as a criterion and criticism of every social order, stripping it of its pretensions to transcendence and thereby freeing it to be simply what it is: a tragic necessity for a fallen world. 

Institutions: The ordering of society through institutions reflects a real though limited good. Judged by the measure of the perfect eschatological society, institutions can be relieved of their pretensions to transcendence and can aspire to better (though always limited) approximations of truth, goodness, beauty, love, and peace – though these subtle approximations are ordinarily possible only where a society has first been adequately restrained by political authority and the rule of law.

Church: The church is not one social institution alongside others, even though the church inevitably expresses its spiritual life through institutional structures. The church is the society of Christ's followers dispersed throughout the world, permeating every institution and every stratum of social order. Christ's followers participate fully in the social and institutional life of a society, but they do so in the mode of repentance and hope. They repent as representatives of the whole social order; and their hope is likewise a representative act on behalf of the whole society. In this way the church functions not as one of the world's institutions but as a leavening of all institutions within a given social order. By pursuing the imitation of Christ through the twofold discipline of love of God and love of neighbour, Christ's followers give persistent witness not to any alternative or improved political order but to something before and beyond all political order: human sociality ordered by love. The existence of such a witness leads in some circumstances to martyrdom, in other circumstances to reforms or modest improvements within a social order. The consequences differ but the witness is the same.

Eschatology: Christian hope is directed not towards a catastrophic end of social life, but towards the revelation of a perfect sociality ordered by love. The infinite beauty of God allows for unceasing growth in love. In the life of the world to come, our growth in love will continue unceasingly, and human society will flourish under the order of love. On that day – but not till then! – the necessity of social ordering through politics, law, and institutions will be lifted.

God: The secret of human history is the patience of God. All God's dealings with humankind are marked by a patient love of growth and life and time. Not coercively but with supreme courtesy, God draws the human partner out beyond itself into loving union with God. This is an eschatological relationship, since the depths of divine love are without limit; but it is eschatology adapted to the capacities of human nature. Our nature is not violently altered from the outside but is, in Christ, creatively healed, renewed, and glorified from within. Strictly speaking, it is our love that is reordered, not our nature. The glorified human being – the human being lovingly united to God and to the neighbour – gives rise to a glorified (because fully human) sociality. A fully human society is the glory of God.

Thursday 4 September 2014

A comment from Kim Fabricius on apocalyptic

Kim intended this comment for the thread on the previous post, Does theology reflect self-interest? But he kindly agreed to run it as a separate post instead:

What St. Egregious said, both about “low-hanging fruit” (or, better, cracking red bopple nuts with a sledgehammer) – and one might add bulverism – and also about Kate Dugan’s measured yet incisive intervention.

Personally, mate, your first two posts on apocalyptic, creation, and social vision came as a bit of a shock, but so high is your stock in my theological portfolio that they forced me, urgently, to re-examine my own mind on the matter. However, I quickly concluded that your take on thinking and living apocalyptically is unrecognisable to me. (That is, if I read you rightly – I’m still not sure that I do; or, as it were, if you not only mean what you say – of course you do – but also say what you mean.) 

In my take, the auto-apocalypsis (cf. your beloved Origen!) Jesus of Nazareth – his life and teaching, his cross and resurrection – neither withdraws us from political and social practices nor tempts us to build them into the New Jerusalem. Rather the Crucified and Risen One reveals them as social ecologies of brokenness in which he is working his white magic of redemption against the black arts of Sin, the Devil, and Death, while calling and empowering us to bear public, parabolic witness to the New World hidden here in pockets but on its way in fullness.

The deal, then, is that, as Christians, we should both radically critique institutions (family, government, industry, university, etc. – and especially the church!) with the principalities-and-powers discernment and protest of a Stringfellow, and also, eschewing smug gnostic detachment and engaging the charism of agency, patiently, imaginatively, and hopefully work to remodel them with the broken-middle commitment of a Gillian Rose. There are no secular-free zones and the kosmos, not just the ecclesia, is where Christians practice the freedom of obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. I’d rather fail, fail again, and maybe fail better (Beckett) over Jesus’ “apocalyptic categories” than be a successful practitioner of Brother Reinhold’s “Christian realism”.

Go on, then – disagree with your elderly theological alter ego who has spent a lifetime in ministry, with plenty of exasperation but no resentment, and who, along the way, has also raised two kids!

Monday 1 September 2014

Does theology reflect self-interest? (another response to critics)

My recent posts described how my understanding of the relation between God and the world has changed in the past several years. One of the recurring criticisms of these posts was that my changing views were motivated by self-interest. This view was expressed by several party members of the AUFS People's Republic, as well as by some of my politically sensitive Facebook friends. A comment on my previous post states this view with admirable clarity:
Why don't you just be entirely honest with us? The real reason why you've changed your stance is because you've realized that you have a huge vested interest in keeping the status quo. I mean, you can say it's your kids and the stockholm syndrome you've developed toiling away for the system, but really at the end of the day, it's your desire to maintain your current comfortable lifestyle. Ahh, how nice it must be!
This habit of associating intellectual convictions with personal self-interest seems to be quite widespread among leftist undergraduates and other well-meaning citizens who get their Marxist theory at two or three removes.

Marx's class theory, however, was about the way broad social changes occur in history. It was not a psychological theory about the motivations of individual persons. In fact, it is axiomatic to Marx's theory that individuals are not consciously serving the interests of their class. Marx was familiar with attempts to explain historical events by uncovering the private interests of individual persons; he regarded such tactics as beneath contempt. In a letter to Engels, Marx poured scorn on a certain German historian who had reduced "the spirit of history" to "facile anecdote-mongering and the attribution of all great events to petty and mean causes" (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895, 159). Marx was emphatic about distancing his theory from "the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest" (Marx, Surveys from Exile, 176-77).

The Marxist class theory explains the way alterations occur in vast social patterns. It does not explain why the bourgeois shopkeeper sells one kind of cheese instead of another. It does not explain why intellectuals subscribe to competing views on any given topic. It does not explain why an Australian theologian might change his mind about something. Marxist class theory is a theory of historical change, not a theory of private motivations.

One of the most brilliant and influential modern revisions of Marxian theory was Foucault's theory of discourse. Like Marx, Foucault wanted to measure large historical patterns of power and interest. His work on power and discourse, so formative for contemporary critical theory, was an attempt to lay bare the vast machinery of language and institutions, not to explain why specific individuals think and act the way they do. His theory of discourse claimed to be an explanation of the whole field within which human subjectivity operates. It was not a reductionist psychological theory, as if all one's daily choices were secretly motivated by power and self-interest.

Again, it is fundamental to critical theory that the real operations of history are hidden from historical agents. (To digress for a moment, this is one aspect of what I am referring to when I compare critical theory to gnosticism: critical theory is always concerned with the acquisition of a secret knowledge that is hidden from the masses.) A theory of discourse does not imply that individual agents (or in Foucault's case, individual speakers) are motivated by power interests. To assert this would be to miss the whole significance of "discourse" as a domain that encompasses a huge diversity of competing interests and motivations. Discourse is "a space of multiple dissensions; a set of different oppositions whose levels and roles must be described" by the critical historian (Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 173).

At any rate, Foucault's concept of power has nothing to do with sentimental moral admonitions about self-interest. Power, in Foucault's vocabulary, is a morally neutral term that describes the way a particular social order is created. "We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it 'excludes', it 'represses', it 'censors', it 'abstracts', it 'masks', it 'conceals'. In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth" (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 194).

Anyone who has understood this theory will perceive the absurdity of the claim that the views of a particular Australian theologian can be explained by unmasking his sinister power-interests. My interlocutors used their critical theory to explain why I had really changed my mind: they might just as well have used quantum theory or homeopathy to explain it.

I have no intention of advancing an alternative account of why people change their minds. Presumably each person's intellectual convictions depend on a unique configuration of culture, education, language, environment, temperament, and experience. A theory rich enough to explain all this would have to be as large as life itself. I will only venture to say that one should take it for granted, until proven otherwise, that other people's convictions are not the product of bad motives or a wicked heart.


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