Author Archives: Vincent Williams

Introducing Christian Theology: An Essay by Ian McFarland

I’m beginning a multi-part series that functions as a running evaluation of books that are suitable as introductory guides to Christian theological reflection. Each book I’ll review is aimed at a beginner level audience with little background in theology, and so, could be utilized in a small group, mentoring, or individual exploratory setting. The goal of this series is to discern which books can help different types of people begin reflecting on their faith, their commitments, and how Christianity might relate to the whole of their life.

Other posts in the series can be found here.


In this post, I want to look at a lecture that Ian McFarland gave titled, “Why Engage in the Discipline of Theology?” Admittedly, this strays somewhat from the goal of this series: to examine the suitability of books for introducing folks to Christian theology. However, when I came across this lecture – in manuscript form – I immediately thought that it would be worth including in this series. You can access the lecture manuscript here – Ian McFarland – Why Study Theology.

ian mcfarlandIan McFarland (PhD, Yale University) is currently the Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge – a post established in 1540 (!) by King Henry VIII. The lecture was originally given to a Lutheran seminary audience but is easily accessible inter-denominationally. The main concern that runs throughout his talk could be summed up as “Why Bother?” That is, why do theology in the first place? Why not just get on with Christian practices that more evidently impact people’s lives? The question is made all the more disconcerting given the tragic history of Christian theology. At many times, it has not seemed like Christians talk about anything good or anything newsworthy for that matter. Add to that the oppressive ends sought by many Christian theologians throughout the centuries – e.g. justifying imperial rule, sanctioning the Crusades, sparking the Inquisition, supporting the enslavement of indigenous peoples, etc. etc. etc.

“The gospel Christians proclaim is supposed to be “good news” for all people everywhere,
yet Christians seem chronically incapable of convincing the world that what they have to say is either news or especially good.”

McFarland argues that, far from eliminating the need for theology, this history actually necessitates theological reflection in the present. Christian theology, he argues, is not something that must be figured out before one can engage in Christian practices (thank God!), but is necessary because of Christian practices that are already being carried out. Its goal is to make sure those practices – and wider ways of Christian talk about God – are faithful to the Gospel.

Christians are called to give an account of their particular hope (1 Peter 3:15). In describing our hope, we are not simply telling our story because Christians claim that their story is also God’s story. Christian theology aims to help Christians tell this story of God’s relations with God’s creation in a way that is faithful to its status as good news. McFarland cites two separate goals in this task.

First, Christian theology is in some sense apologetic. In the modern period, it faces the charge that theology is inherently oppressive and strikingly harmful to human life. It, therefore, must tell its story in ways that both acknowledge its past use and result in the affirmation of life. Second, theology is polemical. This, McFarland argues comes from the scriptural call to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) because not all of them are from God – or, as he puts it: not all ideas and concepts are good ways of speaking the Gospel. This is theology’s task of judging between different proposals for how to tell the Christian story. In doing this, however, theology must always be aware of the temptation toward dogmatism. A self-critical spirit should be ensured that avoids the poles of either absolutism – only one way of speaking is right, and relativism – all ways of speaking are right.

The changing cultural situation Christians find themselves within requires continual reflection on the theologian’s part to help discern which adjustments to their way of speaking can be of greater benefit to new generations. Its tone should always be conversational in this regard. This should result in its willingness to say both “yes” and “no.” This conversation is not simply limited to the present or especially limited only to those in one’s direct proximity. On the contrary, McFarland argues for the necessity of looking to the history of Christianity in conversation with those who have come up with ways to tell the Christian story before us.

“This means listening to all these voices, past or present, in the hope and the confidence that as you enter into the conversation, whether in the work of Irenaeus of Lyons or Martin Luther, of Julian of Norwich or Karl Barth, or of the person sitting next to you, you will find yourself able to discern amid all their very human words the very Word of God.”

This little summary of McFarland’s work, I hope, piques your interest in this lecture. I have found it incredibly helpful for my own thinking about the task of theology, and it’s basic enough so as to be understood by a general educated audience – perfect for classroom or Christian ecclesial education settings.  The best part about it is its brevity and its simplicity. It’s barely a 15-20min read and McFarland clearly lays out his main points in an engaging and convincing manner. The lecture could reliably be used to introduce someone to the reasons why theological reflection can be useful or it can provide fodder for one already reflecting upon their faith, helping them to perceive its worthiness to a greater degree.

Ian McFarland is certainly one of the best systematic theologians today and it is a special treat to have someone of his caliber take the time to offer up accessible reflections on why theology is a worthwhile Christian practice to engage in. I hope you’ll take a look at his essay: Ian McFarland – Why Study Theology.


Note: Please only use the attached pdf for educational or personal purposes (use in Church educational settings is fine). It is licensed for free distribution (Scholars Commons @ Laurier © 2017) and originally published as: Ian McFarland, “Why Engage in the Discipline of Theology?” Consensus 23, no. 2 (1997): 43-59.

Books to Introduce Christian Theology: Robert Jenson’s “A Theology in Outline”

I’m beginning a multi-part series that functions as a running evaluation of books that are suitable as introductory guides to Christian theological reflection. Each book I’ll review is aimed at a beginner level audience with little background in theology, and so, could be utilized in a small group, mentoring, or individual exploratory setting. The goal of this series is to discern which books can help different types of people begin reflecting on their faith, their commitments, and how Christianity might relate to the whole of their life.


Robert Jenson, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?, ed. Adam Eitel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 152 pp, $27.95. (link to purchase)

Robert Jenson, a preeminent Lutheran theologian and former student of Karl Barth, has produced a fascinating little introduction to Christian theology. This book, A Theology in Outline, is a transcribed and edited version of lectures he gave to undergraduates as a visiting professor at Princeton University in 2008. Comprised of nine chapters plus an introduction, Jenson addresses most of the central loci of Christian theological reflection: Israel, Jesus, the Trinity, Creation, Imago Dei, Atonement, and Ecclesiology. Due to its style, however, the book is far from a dry exercise in academic theology; on the contrary, the chapters largely retain a lecture-like vibe and the tone is equal parts apologetic and conversational. Apologetic, because he appears to be trying to convince students of the relevance of Christian thinking (more on that in a second); conversational, because Jenson’s presentation of the topics always remains quite accessible without a significant amount of watering down the content.

jensonInterestingly, and I believe helpfully, Jenson frames his entire enterprise here as a response to the question posed to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” In short, Jenson’s book aims to discover whether Christian theology, the bones in this analogy, retains its relevance and life-giving power in our contemporary situation. This framework for the entire book works well both as a starting point for the myriad of scriptural themes and references throughout the chapters and as an orientation that takes seriously the challenge facing theology today – as well as the skeptic’s charge that theology is just a pile of dead bones, irrelevant for our world, or perhaps even for the Christian life.

To illustrate these features, we can consider briefly his chapter on the Trinity. With his characteristic wit, Jenson skillfully charts the emerging Christian religion’s missionary situation with regard to the competing understandings of God between Israel, the new Church, and the Greek worldview. He continues by describing the scriptural impetus for naming God as three yet lays out the difficulty this would have encountered within an ancient Jewish or Greek worldview, at least on the face of it. By then describing the conciliar consensus around the Trinity in the centuries after Christ, Jenson portrays both the simplicity of the Trinity as well as the various negotiations of worldviews and understandings of the divine that led to its more precise formulation and acceptance. In the midst of this discussion, Jenson never loses sight of the doctrine’s relevance to the Christian life as a means to reflect on the salvation history that we, even today, find ourselves within. The same sort of concerns are taken up in the chapters on other topics.

None of the topics are presented in an overly biased fashion, and one certainly does not get the feeling that Jenson is trying to force his version of the faith upon anyone. He masterfully navigates the main issues at hand in each of the doctrines and he does a good job presenting both an outline of what Christians have believed about the topic in the past, as well as the various options open to the believer today. More significantly, Jenson is always sure to relate each doctrine to its implications upon a Christian form of living. For instance, his chapter on the Church ponders what it might mean for the Church to be holy, and what sort of relation this might imply to the broader culture.

The book ends with a discussion of Christianity’s place within a competing system of worldviews (for lack of a better word) that mark out contemporary life. He is confident in theology’s ability to counteract nihilism and provide a compelling alternative for what makes for a life well-lived in the face of its challenge. These bones, that is Christian theology, can live, Jenson argues. That is, as long as it remains faithful to the cornerstone of its existence – Jesus Christ.

As you may sense, this book does require a bit of intellectual engagement and the ability to understand sometimes complex concepts both historical and theoretical in nature. For that reason, it is best as an introduction to theology for college-aged and older, educated Christians with a desire to think critically about their beliefs, especially as to how they all fit together and result in a semi-coherent picture of our relationship to God and each other. I certainly think this is one of the best introductions out there – one which you would do well to utilize when attempting to introduce Christian theology to those with a desire to explore their faith.

A Lenten Reflection on Sloth

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against You and our neighbors, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

Lent is our special opportunity to devote time toward introspective admission of sin as we make room in our hearts for Christ through penance. Our faults, as we are becoming more aware of day by day, seem vast, nearly unending – in short, we are sinners through and through. There is nothing in our lives or in our individual being that is not touched by sin in some way. The time we have to patiently wait for the coming of Christ is fundamentally marked by sin. Whether in our social life, in our relations with other human beings, or in our individual lives, in the depths of our identities, we cannot escape the effects of sin.

This is a difficult reality to face. In our everyday lives, we are not usually aware of the extent of sin; yet, during Lent we are pressed to confront the reality of our sinfulness head on. There is no space in this season to whitewash the reality of our fallen world and the fault by which we are to blame for its condition.

Although we usually focus on wrong-doing, this only encapsulates one half of sin. In the opening prayer, we confessed that we have sinned by what we have left undone. We have failed to love God with all of our hearts and we have failed to extend this love to others. Irrespective of anything we have actively pursued through our actions, our sin extends further to what we have not done. We are not only beset by evil action, but by evil inaction as well.

We have so often refused to answer Christ’s call, “Follow Me!”

Sloth.

We would rather continue fishing or collecting taxes, so it would seem. Let us at least bury our own dead first, Jesus! Most of the time, Christ’s call to follow him goes unheeded. We might say that the cares of this world are too great, or that our time is too short. Leave me alone. Let me be.

And so, we bury our talents in the ground hoping to secure what we have thus far accumulated.

The grace of God in Christ calls us not only to repentance, but to action. We cannot stop at merely admitting our past faults, though that is a welcome start. Sin as sloth is not, because of its apparent emptiness, somehow lesser than our evil actions. In both senses, our sin is disobedience – first because we do what God does not want, and second, when we do not do what God wants. In a fundamental sense, however, sloth is the most basic form of sin because it is this very refusal to heed the call to follow Christ that sets us further down the path of active sin, rebellion, and idolatry.

Christians are called to action, to diligent action on behalf of the gospel. Focusing for a bit on our duty to love our neighbors, we can begin to see the intensity of the Gospel’s call on our lives.

You shall love your neighbor. This call is a personal one; it is directed to you – there is no escape. You shall love your neighbor. This call directs our attention to others, away from our own comfort. You shall love your neighbor. This call consists in the duty of an active pursuit – it is a demand, a joyful demand to extend God’s love.

In our sloth, we treat Christ’s call with indifference. We disobey God’s command to love others. We do not trust in Christ’s promise to those who actively follow his will. Chiefly, sloth expresses our refusal to give thanks for the gift of Christ. We demonstrate our own ingratitude toward what Christ has done and has called us to continue alongside him. Here then, our sloth results finally in our refusal to love God.

And so, we confess that we have sinned by what we have left undone.

What does God offer as the remedy to our slothful condition? The remedy lies chiefly in that which sloth refuses: the call, “Follow Me!” This call is not simply an arbitrary expression of what we ought to do. First and foremost, the call is a response to Christ’s person. It is Christ whom we are called to follow. “Follow Me!”

A call to follow is a call to imitate, to tag along if you will. In contrast to our sloth, we see in Christ the supreme example of God’s love in its diligent, ever-active expression.

“Christ, who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:6–8.

God, knowing our need for redemption, did not exhibit sloth – just the opposite, in fact. During Lent, we should recognize the incredible nature of the Incarnation. Although it has likely become a matter of simple affirmation, no longer connected to our sense of joy or wonder due to the sheer repetition of its presentation to us in Church, let us return to a childlike faith filled with awe at the humility through which God demonstrated love toward us.

In the Exodus story, too, we are confronted with God’s diligent activity on our behalf. God told Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” Unlike the call whereby we are directed to follow Christ, our cries to God never go unheeded. We respond with slothful inactivity, God responds through redeeming acts of love.

God’s diligence, moreover, is superabundantly greater than the strength of our sloth. God upholds the world in its entirety in each and every moment of its existence. Were God to exhibit sloth, we would cease to exist. Our very being is held together by God’s sustaining grace. By following Christ in our situation today, we are called to imitate this active love toward others that God demonstrates in Christ: “Follow Me!”

Our lives are in the meantime marked by sin. Sloth is the chief expression of our mistrust, disbelief, and disobedience. When we confess these inactions of ours, we figuratively make room for God to come into our lives. May we allow this Lenten season to provide us with a more complete recognition of our sin, and so for our repentance to more fully express the reality of our slothful refusal to completely love God and others. As we liturgically prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, let us not lose sight of the hope which is ours: God’s diligence, in redeeming acts throughout history and the sustaining grace that gives us every breath we take, is always actively demonstrating God’s unconditional love for all of creation. “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

And so finally, we close just as we have begun: looking to our most merciful Lord and Savior, acknowledging our sin.

We confess that we have sinned against You and our neighbors, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.


This post originally appeared in Emily Bricker’s “Voices of Lent” Reflection series

Religion and Politics Book Recommendations

I apologize for the lackluster state of this blog in the past months. I’ve been struggling to figure out the proper words to say in a time like this. I certainly haven’t yet decided how to move forward with this space, but in the interim, I hope this recommendation list might be helpful to some people.

One of my favorite areas of theological research comes by way of exploring the various models for religiously-based political action. So, without wasting any more time, here’s a brief list of the works that I have found most helpful. These are all generally designed for the upper-level undergraduate or graduate student in theology or ethics, but I’ve also included some more accessible books by the same authors in parenthesis for those without as much of a theological background.


politics-of-god1. Politics of God by Kathryn Tanner (Prof. at Yale). Friends of mine will already know that I deeply cherish Tanner’s work, and this happens to be my favorite of her works (perhaps surprisingly!). It originally appeared in 1992, but to me, it remains her most underappreciated work. The theological vision within is extraordinarily powerful and nothing short of inspiring. Tanner plums the depths of Christian beliefs for their socio-political import to great success, demonstrating in the meantime their inherently radical character. This book will not provide you with a ready-made solution to any specific socio-political issue; rather, it will give you a nice framework for assessing any and all issues that may come up now or in the future. (link to purchase)

theology-of-public-life2. A Theology of Public Life by Charles Mathewes (or, his book The Republic of Grace as an intro). Charles Mathewes (Prof. at the University of Virginia) is definitely one of the best theological ethicists today, and this book is his fascinating contribution to the field. Deeply entrenched in the Augustinian tradition, Mathewes argues that the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love/charity) should be the center of theological reflection on Christian engagement in the public sphere. His account is compelling as a way forward that is distinctly Christian and refuses to give up hope. (link to purchase)

flourishing3. Flourishing by Miroslav Volf (or, his book A Public Faith as an intro). Miroslav Volf (Prof. at Yale) writes in a more accessible style, but don’t let that make you think it isn’t as hard hitting as the others. Flourishing takes up the issue of globalization, describing its inherently ambivalent character, and argues for the contribution that Christianity might be able to make for the common good. Christianity offers a vision of the good life that has the power to properly realign human life in the midst of our contemporary world marked by such profound change and disruption. Further, Volf makes a convincing case for religious tolerance, based on Christian theology, in face of the increased contact with religious difference that globalization fosters. In a time when the confrontation with difference has tended to skew towards nativism, nationalism, racism, and inequality, Volf’s contribution is sorely needed. I reviewed this book on here a while back. (link to purchase)

church state and civil society.jpg4. Church, State, and Civil Society by David Fergusson (Prof. at the University of Edinburgh). David Fergusson’s book deals largely with the issue of the Church’s proper relation to the state. He recounts how much of the history of Christian political thinking took place within societies akin to a “Christendom” that are clearly outdated for the present. In marking out the Church’s role in public life today, Fergusson makes a theological case for toleration and explores the contributions of the Barmen Declaration and Vatican II traditions for Christian political thinking. He ultimately argues that separation of Church and State is a good policy for the well-being of both the Church and the state, ultimately allowing the Church to have a more authentic, faithful voice. Fergusson’s writing style is very clear, and he does a masterful job of explaining what is at stake in the debates. (link to purchase)


In addition to these more abstract texts, in that they function on the level of theological framework, here are a few topical recommendations that I’ve found most helpful.

Economics:

  1. Economy of Grace by Kathryn Tanner. In this text, Tanner explores how the Christian story might be put in economic terms (e.g. the circulation of grace vs. money), and through this, demonstrates that the basic structure of the Christian story could have quite radical effects on the organization of our economic life. She has updated this version in here recent Gifford Lectures (which I analyzed in depth here) to reflect the shift to finance-dominated capitalism in the 2000s.
  2. The Making of the Indebted Man or Governing by Debt by Maurizio Lazzarato. An Italian social theorist, Lazzarato is at first difficult to understand but this stems mainly from a difference in writing style and his own invention of certain concepts. Nonetheless, there is no one better equipped to explore the condition of indebtedness that is now perhaps the most widespread existential condition in the developed world. He shows debt’s effect on persons’ self-understanding of themselves and the actions that it fosters. I’ve been able to think about sin and redemption using Lazzarato as a chief exponent of the economic condition we find ourselves in today.
  3. No Rising Tide by Joerg Rieger. As a (generally) liberation theologian, Rieger (Prof. at Vanderbilt) takes on the Great Recession and argues that Christians have deeply entrenched reasons to advocate for a more equitable economic arrangement.

Here are a few political philosophy books that have helped me gain a framework for assessing current institutional arrangements from the standpoint of justice. These aren’t theological works, but they should at least be on the radar of Christians reflecting on political theology.

  1. A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. Originally appearing in 1971, this book has long been recognized as the most important work of political philosophy of the 20th century. It is still the starting point for any discussion of justice. In the book, Rawls argues for a vision of social contract theory that defines justice as fairness. Further, Rawls argues that anything less than maximizing the prospects of the least well-off group of people is unjust. The book is quite large, and the writing dry, but key sections of this book are simply indispensable.
  2. Social Justice in the Liberal State by Bruce Ackerman (He is less well-known to the general public but extremely influential in political philosophy and legal theory). While Ackerman might get a bad reputation to some for being a classical liberal, his vision of justice is strikingly powerful. He takes aim at every single possible relation of power and examines it on the basis of neutrality (that is, by what right is power exercised in each case?). The result is a means to assess every relationship, both institutional and personal, on the basis of a radical equality marked by neutral reasoning – an illuminating tool to put in the Christian’s toolkit.
  3. Justice and the Politics of Difference by Iris Marion Young. Young, the paradigmatic Feminist political philosopher (and Prof. at the University of Chicago) of our time explores the dynamics of oppression in this work. Arguing that structural oppression is much more widespread than one might have imagined, her work may seem to result in an unending pessimism. However, Christians might find resources in her identification of oppression by connecting it to our concept of sin and thereby fueling our own actions partnering with God in the work of redemption.

Sociology:

  1. God’s Century by Toft, Philpott, and Shah. This book by multiple authors tackles the secularization thesis (the argument that the world is becoming increasingly secularized, leading to the ultimate decline and perhaps eradication of religion) by showing the resurgence of religion as a political force throughout the world. It’s a very helpful resource for understanding the global dynamic of politically-assertive religion and the prospects for the 21st century.
  2. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber. This originally ground-breaking work is still a must-read for those thinking about the impact religious beliefs have on economic and social life. Weber’s study from the early 1900s explored the role Reformed Christianity played in the development of capitalism. While controversial today, a familiarity with this work is a prerequisite for critical thinking about the import of Christian beliefs.
  3. The Big Squeeze by Steven Greenhouse. A New York Times reporter, Greenhouse charts the history of the worker in the United States from the late 20th century to the present. He examines the various dynamics that have increasingly exerted pressure on the worker leading to the precarious situation labor finds itself in today. This is an incredible overview of the ways in which the everyday worker has been affected by broad changes in management and economic policy in the past few decades.

I hope you find some of these helpful. Happy Reading!

Hope For This Season

From the first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. For Christian faith lives from the rising of the crucified Christ, and strains after the promises of the universal future of Christ. – Jurgen Moltmann (Theology of Hope, 16)

I have to admit that I’ve been pretty fearful as a result of recent events. From the terrorist attacks around the world to recent fear filled political rhetoric from a certain presidential candidate. I’ve watched on the side of the road as many I know and love have been captivated by this atmosphere of fear, fear not necessarily there to begin with, but cultivated in people in order to control and convince them. Fear, as we all know from experience, is one of the most powerful human emotions. It motivates human action like nearly nothing else can do.

This, however, makes it prime real estate for oppressors to set up shop in the human heart. If they can convince you to be afraid – whether of physical or emotional violence, the future of your children, or even your own personal fate – they’ve got you locked in to doing as they please. Of course, there are legitimate things we should be afraid of. I’m not trying to say that fear doesn’t have any positive role to play at all in our lives. For one, I think it is perfectly legitimate for us to fear the consequences of those who use fear to control others. I am afraid of what the Donald Trump phenomena means. I’m afraid for those who have been trapped by his seducing ideology of fear.

While there are many horrible, just awful things happening in our world, I do not think we should ever entertain the thought that fear has the last word – or even the first! Christianity is notably different in this manner. Our faith is one marked by faith, hope, and love. Fear isn’t in our vocabulary. “Perfect love,” we read, “drives out fear.”

Love should rule how we relate to all of creation. As simple as it seems at first, Jesus taught us that the old way of retaliation and revenge, of “getting even” is not his way; we are to instead love even our enemies (surely that precludes killing their families!). In Christ there is no “us” or “them” for either one to be fearful of the other. No “them” to keep away from “us”. No “them” who don’t belong with “us”. Love rules out all of those ways of relating with our neighbors, regardless of whether they are undocumented, poor, disabled, rich, unclean, black, or different from us.

From Paul, we learn that Christ has torn down all of those dividing walls that we have set up in our sinful ways. Speaking of the formerly hostile relations between Jews and Gentiles (perhaps a placeholder for the “other”), he writes, “Christ has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…reconciling both groups to God in one body.” While it may seem like high-strung theology, Paul is quick, as usual, to demonstrate the implications of these beliefs: “so then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens (talk about a path to citizenship!) with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

Love makes no distinctions in the ways that humanity has routinely divided itself up into all sorts of categories and attached varying degrees of social status or privilege to each. This is the way of the world, not the way of love. To see Christ in each one of us, our enemies – yes, especially them – is what it means to love. We are never closer to resembling God and following Jesus than we are when we are loving those whom the world has deserted and left for dead. We may even be called to lay down our life for another, as John proclaimed was the culmination of love.

There is hope in this love. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible are there to continually remind us that our nationalism is likely more idolatry than it is patriotism. We can and we must support the well-being of our neck of the woods, but the logic of empire, imperialism, domination, the strong-man (i.e. “I alone can solve your problems!” – Trump), and war is not the way Christians are to live out their faith in the public sphere. The prophets were always necessary to remind us that we do not serve God by legitimizing empires but by protecting the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. This, is what a country should aim for. The health of Israel was never measured in God’s eyes by how large its borders were, how high its walls, how much the majority was protected from minorities, or how much law and order there was in its streets, but by how well they cared for those most likely to go without help in the world.

There were to be no strings attached to their love of the oppressed. God doesn’t limit his salvation to those who can pass a drug test or actively seek employment, as many social welfare laws do (or people might want them to do). God’s love, and in turn the goal of our own, is unconditional – without conditions, no boxes to check first! We are not to love those who look, speak, and act like us. Remember, that’s what Jesus called out the religious leaders of Israel for doing. Instead, Jesus taught the Israelites that the Samaritans were there neighbors – and therefore Israel was obliged to love them just as their own even though they were considered foreigners, had different beliefs, and looked different from them.

christ in hell

A Medieval depiction of Christ descending to, and liberating those in, hell. Credited to a follower of Hieronymus Bosch, late 15th century, Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The implications of this love taught by Jesus go all the way back to the origin stories of Israel. God tells us through Moses that “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). Again, as the sinful people we are, this is still timely in our own day. The first century Christians dealt with it as well. As Gentiles were being converted to the faith, recently liberated Jews wanted to put the “yoke” of observing all the law onto these new converts. It’s just something about human nature that when we are free we too often use our freedom to oppress others. Paul responded, along with the Jerusalem council, that this would be too much of a burden to the new believers who were still relishing in the freedom they had received from Christ (this is, by the way, a lesson when trying to subdue enemies with “law and order”).

 

Christians are called to love unconditionally. To drive out all fear by their love. There is no fear of the “other” for Christians. We are all in this together. Even Leviticus, of all places (!), knew this best: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners” (19:34).

Love, as we find out from the New Testament is really the most precise definition for God. “God is love,” we are told. It’s the stuff God is made of. It’s what Jesus embodied as the Logos, the perfect image of God, on earth. It’s what Christians who take seriously the call to follow Christ should ever strive to be as well. Although many of us come from different and unique backgrounds, have diverse jobs, hold varying theological or political beliefs, we are all united by this singular mission of Christ’s body, the Church: to be love in our love-less, fearful world. “Our vocation is love,” as St. Therese of Lisieux would joyfully declare.

What have I been saying? As we approach this election season, full of its normal divisiveness, let us work to promote togetherness knowing that Christ has torn down all the walls of separation we build up between one another. We don’t look for a political messiah who will magically solve all of our problems through dictatorial rule; we only have one Lord, Jesus Christ. When our world is full of mockery and hate, let us strive to restore the dignity and value of those whom politicians try to downplay. God humbles the proud and raises up the lowly.

But more than anything, let us remove fear from our vocabulary. Although it is powerful, our faith and our love cast it out of our lives. There is no place for fear in the Christian life – whether or not it is directed towards what one may think are “legitimate” ends. Especially this week, I have been constantly tempted to respond to Trump’s fear-mongering and inciting, with fear of my own. Even when that fear motivates me to work even harder for the cause of justice for the oppressed and the unconditional equality of all persons, we are all better off, and ultimately much more powerful when we respond to fear with love. This is where our hope lies: in our ability, with God’s help, to love in spite of whatever others, or the events of this world may be encouraging us to do.

Christian love is not primarily inwardly-directed, to ourselves and what will make us safe or comfortable. It is directed toward those who are needy, oppressed, poor, and broken. It’s sent out to the Samaritans and the Gentiles, metaphorically speaking, of our world today, not just the white Christians who have historically been the ones in power and control in our country. Love is more purely so when it is given to our “enemies,” in doing so, it turns them into friends, to brothers and sisters. Remember, we are all in this together. Choose hope not fear. Leave hate behind and embrace love.

I will close similarly to how I began, with another quote.

Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it… Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic’ because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught. – Moltmann (Theology of Hope).

Classical Divine Attributes, Freshly Illumined: A Review Essay of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology Vol. 1

A Review Essay of Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology Vol. 1: The Doctrine of God, Fortress Press, 2015, xxvi + 539pp. (Link to purchase here).

sonderegger doctrine of godReading (and I assume writing!) a multi-volume systematic theology is a quite taxing endeavor. For one, readers must choose wisely which theologians are worth their time, and then must stick through the often cumbersome – even in the best of books – sections of the series to reach the end. There, one hopes, a full picture of an individual’s thinking about many of the major topics of the Christian faith will become clear. Katherine Sonderegger’s first volume, The Doctrine of God, offers readers a foray into the most basic of theological questions – both the investigations of “what?” God is, and “who?” God is. Her written style is unique among modern systematicians in that I found it to be quite enjoyable in and of itself, regardless of content. Sonderegger simply knows how to write almost poetically, yet she always remains within a rigorous academic treatment of her subject matter. The uniqueness of her style foreshadows, in particular, a few of her own constructive contributions to the doctrine of God that, while being illuminating, a modern theological student might struggle to buy into.

In fact, Sonderegger wastes no time delivering her admittedly peculiar sentiments to the reader. She begins with a sort of justification of her entire project while trying to avoid the normal course of declaring a specific theological methodology (For a peak at her qualms with method – “Doctrine governs and generates method, not the converse!” xx, and “Method is a fatal disease in dogmatics,” 377). Since the mid-20th century, at least, theologians by and large have decided to stress the Trinitarian nature of God, and have begun their theology from that starting point rather than the oneness of God. Similarly, it is often the case that theologians ground their doctrines in Christology as the ultimate revelation of God’s nature (a sometimes burdensome refrain is scattered throughout this book: “Not all is Christology!”). Sonderegger rejects these two common moves, for “nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God than this utter unicity” (xiv). It’s not necessarily clear as day why she begins that way, but I sense it has a lot to do with how much her theology attempts to embed itself within the order given in scripture. She understands the Christian faith to be deeply rooted with the tradition of ancient Israel along with a corresponding stress upon the relative value given to the Torah. She writes, “The Bible rests upon its own foundation, the law given to Moses, and inscribed in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses” (13).

Underpinning this turn to the Hebrew Bible lies her understanding of theological reading of the text. Unfortunately, she waits until the very end of her book to explicitly disclose her method of reading scripture. The core of this method is that she believes scripture, even when not obviously instructive in genre, has the ability to teach doctrine, to teach metaphysics even. This allows her to give extraordinarily profound readings of familiar texts like the burning bush of Exodus, Elisha and his servant of 2 Kings, the structure of the Book of Numbers, and the first creation account of Genesis. These readings (more on these later) are one of the strongest, yet at times controversial, aspects of Sonderegger’s work.

Enough of my own throat-clearing; let’s dive into the main discussions in this text. Besides a few intro and concluding remarks, this first volume of systematics is largely framed around three classical attributes of God: omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. In this first section then, Sonderegger’s overarching argument is that the one God’s omnipresence is God’s hiddenness. Of course, on the face of it, presence and hiddenness seem just the type of features we would consider polar opposites, but Sonderegger offers reasons why in a doctrine of God they should go together. Succinctly, “The presence of the One God takes place in the Mode and form of invisibility: when He is disclosed, He is not seen” (74). In this argument, her readings of the burning bush and 2 Kings 6 come into play. In the story of Elisha’s servant, we realize that God surrounds us with an infinite, yet hidden, presence. Again, while the text may not explicitly be instructive in genre, Sonderegger argues that this text is one of the foundational stories upon which to learn the metaphysical reality of God’s spiritual nature and invisibility. With the burning bush (an episode which she oddly claims is the “bedrock of all theological reasoning,” 80), a similar truth about God’s very nature is taught: God is clearly revealed in the bush as the One Moses encounters, but God remains unseen and hidden even when “revealed” in that way. Moreover, this story teaches about the compatibility between God and creatures – the bush is not consumed. God can be ever-present to creatures without their diminishment.

Along the way, Sonderegger remarks that God’s nature, in these instances, reveals itself as naturally communicable. In other words, it is the self-communication of God that teaches us the hidden nature of God’s omnipresence. This would be opposed to an apophatic type approach which arrives at a theology of hiddenness due not to the disclosure of God, but rather the lack thereof! Perhaps most strikingly, Sonderegger even cites atheism as testifying, albeit in a non-straightforward way, the hidden nature of God. While these moves are certainly clever, and quite illuminating at times, for the same reasons it is difficult to get fully onboard her project. Hiddenness and invisibility may certainly be a divine attribute based on God’s spiritual nature, but it is hard to see how Sonderegger’s approach is not at least a partial whitewashing of profound problems in certain Christian understandings of God. Sonderegger turns hiddenness into quite the virtue, indeed it even reveals the holy humility of the Lord in easing into our ways of knowing. I fear, however, that such a swift theological gesture to remove divine hiddenness from the deepest anxieties of human life discredits the profoundness of trying to make do with an often hidden God. Sonderegger is clear that the “hiddenness of God… emerges not from absence but rather from divine presence,” (68) with a stress on presence, but I’m not convinced that hiddenness should be so quickly put to positive use.

In the middle portion of the book, Sonderegger addresses the issue of divine omnipotence, or rather, as she puts it, the Lord’s holy humility. She is well aware of contemporary problems of divine power, i.e. the classical problem of evil, abuse, and basic definitions. Along the way, she makes interesting use of the identity of essence and existence of God according to scholastic theology; power is not a capacity that God has, but is God’s reality – God just is power (e.g., “God does not wield power, does not own it, or exercise it, but rather simply is this,” 188). Perhaps controversially, especially to those students of the tradition of omnipotence, Sonderegger does “not define power as to do as one wills” (176). Even further, “we must say that Divine Omnipotence, the Lord’s Holy Humility, must be removed from the category cause altogether” (177). Adding to the, now long, list of popular positions she rejects, Sonderegger refuses to think of God as either will (certainly not a deliberative will) or intellect, both positions favored by some of the more influential figures in Christian history. At this point, she tests the waters of her theory against Schleiermacher’s conception of God as absolute cause, favoring her own account of divine power in relation with creatures.

Delving into a theological reading of Jeremiah and the Book of Numbers, Sonderegger argues for a vision of a “dangerous” God, completely free over creation. With Jeremiah, she wonders whether the Israelite pattern of exile and return should not rather simply be called abuse. While foreshadowing elements of her later Christology, she proclaims that the cycle of exile and return has an ending (and it is not that we deserve our own suffering or trials), ultimate redemption, brought about by our relation to Christ – again, the real form of divine power. But perhaps more interesting is Sonderegger’s reading of Numbers as a whole. Through all of its rampant disorder and confusion, Numbers, for her, represents the general character of our human lives that are often difficult to put into a meaningful narrative. Strikingly, God seems rather strange in this book: jealous, changing moods, etc. Moses instead looks like the God Christians know; he intercedes for Israel, is patient, and embodies humility. She takes this to be a sort of (metaphorical?) fusion of divine and human in Moses and the Lord of Numbers whereby Moses displays many of the divine attributes we have been discussing thus far. Sonderegger writes, “The daring distribution of subjectivity we find in Numbers, the deification of Moses (!), speaks in its own idiom, of Christ’s personal life, His Hypostatic Union with the Word” (293). Apart from some often times odd remarks concerning Moses’ relation with the latter revelation of Christ, the point is driven home that God’s power lies within God’s relation.

This God, working through the human Moses and Jeremiah combines a sort of mutability in immutability. The relation to creatures that Sonderegger reads from these familiar narratives is the expression of omnipotence: holy humility, to descend and engage with creation. The creation accounts of Genesis come to her aid regarding the fusion of humility and power with Sonderegger’s account of the jussive “let there be…” of Genesis 1. This, according to Sonderegger, is God’s invitation to life demarcated from the notion of command. However, “the initiative in any relation ad extra lies with Almighty God: He makes a relation possible” (301). In summarizing all of these points, it is difficult to see just how Sonderegger imagines how the relation of the divine nature to creation results in what we would normally consider power. While rejecting any concept that identifies omnipotence with an all-powerful will, act, or causation altogether, the reader is hard-pressed to understand just what the divine relation ad extra is. Perhaps her forthcoming volumes will address this issue in its requisite depth when dealing with Christology – a unique salvific relation (utilizing Schleiermacher) she hints at in a few places in the present work.

Moving lastly toward divine omniscience, Sonderegger again highlights the identity of essence and existence in God. Knowledge, here, is not a faculty, nor the result of a filled divine mind. Connecting knowledge with the divine perfection of eternity (which for her, “is not the absence of time,” 343), Sonderegger makes a quite clever argument for God’s knowledge apart from any creation. God’s knowledge is not what is learned from observing the events of the world, in other words. Omniscience, like power and presence from above, is the way the Lord relates to creatures. In short, Lady Wisdom, for Sonderegger, is God personified – wise in all her ways. Omniscience, then, is independent of creatures, and is, in my mind, better placed alongside traditional notions of what it means to be wise – a feature of how one lives their life. Rejecting ideas of God filled with anxiety and fear, Sonderegger is adamant to argue that God as wisdom itself does not mean that God is a relentless inquisitor always ready to attack the human conscience. Humility, as in the other attributes, plays a central role; God’s knowing is humble, giving creatures their privacy and space to be themselves.

I’ll admit Sonderegger’s argument for divine omniscience was complex and took many detours along the way. It’ll take much closer study to arrive at the full ramifications of her thesis here, and to learn from her theological acumen. Sandwiched between her conclusions regarding divine omniscience proper is a brief roundabout treatment of human knowledge of God and the world. She calls these the problems of grounding and representation. Our knowledge is not “grounded” in an archetype in God’s mind, say, nor is God properly known through mental representation – this would violate the fundamental axiom that God is uncircumscribable and spiritual, without form. A nuanced form of representation is true though, especially regarding Christ (again with odd remarks regarding Moses – Christ is “the one who represents Moses perfectly,” 409), known in loving faith by humanity, and as a representative (rather than a representation) of God.

As was admitted in the beginning of my review, readers heavily influenced or convinced by a Christological grounding of theological epistemology may be confused why Sonderegger just doesn’t take that next step, particularly here when the potential seems most alluring. Readers on this point may just have to leave it at a fundamental theological disagreement, yet this should not be reason to ignore Sonderegger’s poking and prodding on this subject matter. Moving on now, Sonderegger concludes the section on divine omniscience with a heavily Augustine-influenced doctrine of divine illumination. God is not seen, but is that which we see by. God provides the basis for our own ability to know things.

Readers who have traveled this far, both in my review and deep into the last pages of Sonderegger’s book, will be graced with a discussion of divine love as the “keystone of divine perfections” (perhaps another nod to the structure of Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith). Theology, for her, should evoke love, not burden the reader with dull ‘castle in the sky’ remarks. Once again returning to her favorite theological position, Sonderegger tries to explore what it means for God to be love, not just have it. This immediately raises the question of whether or not God as love itself is inherently in need of an object for that love, after all, what is love without an object? Many theologians, Barth and Augustine included, have run full speed with this metaphor to posit the necessity of eternal distinctions within God to account for the seemingly necessary character of an object for divine love. But Sonderegger, as is par for the course by this point, wants to say that God is love irrespective of an object of that love. She likens divine love to a disposition that is a fact regarding God’s nature. Here, “The Lord God is Love as a metaphysical Disposition and Truth, a Substance that carries this Property, a Nature that is defined in just this way” (488). In the end, this God is passionate, but not in the same way as some liberation theologians would have it; God does not suffer in love, nor does emotion entail embodiment as some might worry.

That wraps up the first volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology. While there are many points where readers and I may disagree on quite fundamental levels, others may find her account of God nearly flawless in its unique ability to illuminate our subject matter as theologians. Regardless of one’s perspective on the specifics, her book is at the same time thoroughly enjoyable to read, think through, and devote time to as it is a stark challenge to much late 20th century theology. I can wholeheartedly recommend this work to anyone with an interest in theology, content in my own experience of assurance that Sonderegger will challenge, and ultimately strengthen, the reader’s own understanding of God.


Also check out Chris Green’s wonderful review of this book over at The Other Journal.

Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – A Critical Review

“Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism,” 2016 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, by Kathryn Tanner.

A Critical Review by Vincent Williams

In these much anticipated Gifford Lectures, Kathryn Tanner continues her already impactful work on economic markets, begun in 2005 with her publication of Economy of Grace.[1] This time around, however, Tanner is equipped with further research into the neoliberal condition as well as post-mortem insight gained from the financial crisis of 2008. Cleverly alluding in her title to Max Weber’s seminal work from the first decade of the 20th century, Tanner aims to reverse Weber’s analysis such that Christianity is a counter, rather than a companion, to the current configuration of capitalism. She states that her aim is “to show how Christian beliefs might undermine, rather than support, the new spirit of capitalism,” playing off Weber’s work, “what Christianity gives, it can also take away” (1).[2] The argument is arranged around the three-fold notion of time as past, present, and future; how capitalism and Christianity form vastly different subjects under this structure. In her analysis of subject formation, Tanner routinely engages Michel Foucault as a dialog partner, especially his lectures titled The Birth of Biopolitics given at the Collège de France in 1978–9, citing both her affinity for his work and its limitations.[3]

The lectures are half economic analysis and half constructive theology, the former at times quite technical, especially for the uninitiated. Where the argument is occasionally limited by economic complexity, considering a theological audience, it makes up for in a clear correlation between problem and proposed solution. Tanner never merely demonstrates her economic erudition apart from offering a Christian counter claim to said economic situation. She begins by developing the claim that capitalism is presently “finance-dominated,” meaning that the financial sector of the economy is increasingly important for potential profit and therefore dictates how other sectors, including individual actors, are to function. She insightfully points out that the current obsession with maximal profit is quite odd, and that the implications of this and other features of finance-dominated capitalism forms subjects who desire for themselves what capitalism requires. As many have experienced thus far in attempts to change how the economy is organized, capitalism for that reason seems like the only game in town – this is its “imagination constructing” nature according to Tanner. In order to undermine capitalism as it stands today, one “needs to meet it with a counter spirit of similar power” (1). And just here, Tanner’s creative theological proposals begin to have their merit.

In the second lecture, “Chained to the Past,” Tanner stresses how past decisions take on a particularly inexorable quality (e.g. accepting job responsibilities, accruing debt). This forms subjects to be largely self-managing in order to meet the demands of the past – demands set by finance which are fixed, yet leave the means in the individual’s hands. “Every present is past preoccupied and nothing more is to be expected in the future than what the past has already laid down” (2). In describing how debt chains borrowers (both individual debtors and governments), she counters its negative effects by offering up the Christian idea of repudiating one’s past. One is, in her proposal, to become a new person whereby the past never completely constrains the present or future as it does in capitalism today. Because God has entered the picture, possibilities are always open for radical transformation. The meaning of conversion is just this according to Tanner: a radical break with the past (along with its economic implications) rather than a mere continuation bound by its limits.

Tanner’s third lecture, “Total Commitment,” is largely devoted to an analysis of contemporary workplace culture. Companies use fear, require self-evacuation, and give attention to one’s whole person (i.e. Tanner argues, “As much as the doing, to be demonstrated in job performance, one’s being, the character of one’s person and dispensations is a primary matter for employer concern” (3)) in order to produce the subjects that will acquiesce to its demands. Individuals are to see themselves as literal capital, or run their lives like businesses to manage and make use of – in short, to maximize their value as human assets. This is the same maximizing principle that forms finance as a whole, returning to that earlier theme. To do what capitalism requires, workers must be totally committed to the present task, nearly impossible goals await completion and no slack exists in the workflow to make up for the smallest of mistakes. While at times limited to very specific cases inapplicable to other types of workers, Tanner’s analysis of corporate work culture is nonetheless illuminating.

Commitment to God, as Tanner argues, is critical of the total commitment to work that capitalism requires; nothing can overrule one’s commitment to God. She says, “Commitment to God and the conversion it brings about interferes with the total commitment to anything else, thereby limiting the degree by which one could ever be completely personally invested in a company’s aims” (3). This solution is still a kind of absolute attention to the present however, because the Christian is to live completely for God and continuously work on their piety. Tanner even utilizes the same semi-Puritan language of the Christian life as a “project,” which is quite analogous to her description of capitalism’s demands thus far. The difference is significant though, for in the Christian life, grace is always available and one need not live in continual anxiety in the present for God can always make up for our failures and is, more centrally, the agent of one’s transformation to begin with. While a more explicit conversation about the notion of divine and human agency Tanner utilizes in these lectures would be quite useful (namely its compatible or non-competitive character), listeners are to be cognizant of how this series falls into place within her overall theological vision wherein she has addressed this issue in its requisite depth. To summarize the point on commitment, Tanner argues that Christian focus on the present is for the sake of conformity to God, not to the dictates of the market.

In “Nothing but the Present,” Tanner again turns her eye toward how subjects are formed in the present. Akin to their total commitment, workers are to be completely engaged in the present in order to meet company demands and to take the brunt of the fallout when investors’ “short-termism,” as she calls it, unavoidably results in workers’ detriment. Because of the oversized profits to be made in finance in addition to real-time trading of financial instruments, corporations are focused on short-term profit. There is relatively little consideration for workers’, or the company’s for that matter, long-term benefit (e.g. high wages and benefits) because those long-term considerations would cut into the much desired short-term profits to be made in finance. Similar to Tanner’s response in the third lecture, she thinks that Christianity is incredibly focused on the present because one is to always be oriented toward God. The character of this orientation allows the Christian to make it relevant to the whole of their life, in all of its aspects. For instance, Tanner cites the urgent quality of conversion. Unlike in capitalism, one’s decision to convert in the present is not based upon fear of loss, but is rather grounded upon the grandiose offer of salvation and its own attractiveness. While it is not too hard to sort out, Tanner does seem to jump around between speaking of conversion as that initial salvific event, as traditional Christianity would have it, and the ongoing decision to everyday live one’s life for God. This lack of consistency is not an overt problem, but one that requires care from the listener.

Moving on to the relation to the future, Tanner notes that, in capitalism, the future is regarded only for its character to either make or break financially. Capitalism disciplined by finance desires to control and collapse the future so that it is nothing more than an outcome of the present, but market volatility seems to make that entirely impossible (even if stock brokers take all the credit for their success in hindsight). Finance introduce all sorts of tricks to counter this volatility through stock options, futures contracts, or derivatives to cite a few from Tanner’s lecture. In this discussion, it was perhaps most difficult to discern just what Tanner thinks the problem is. Of course it’s a problem for finance – they are the ones who are trying to make the money here – but it remained slightly unclear why Christians should oppose this way of others’ relating to the future; rather than a solution to a real problem, this section seemed more like a description of how Christians think of the future differently. The principle that Tanner counters with, however, is that Christians do not try to master the future or relegate it to mere strict conformity with the present. In Christianity there is a massive transformation between the present and the future, the difference between the two is much larger than that even in the most volatile market conditions. But this difference is actually the attractiveness of the Christian future because one counts upon God’s ultimate benevolence. Christian hope is not limited, Tanner argues, by the present, or even the amount of progress to-date. Grace allows for real transformation regardless of the past.

In these last notes, it is hard to discern where Tanner is speaking of this eschatological dimension of Christianity as only a temporally future possibility, or, as she later argues, its ability to exist in the here and now, the eternal life already begun in Christ that cuts across the world today. Moreover, there remains a certain uneasiness about how Christianity does, it seems, try to control the future; this very feature is what assures us that it will be good. Perhaps though this is a positive feature, rather than negative, because it has the potential to quell the anxiety produce by capitalism’s reflections upon the future.

In her final lecture, “Which World?” Tanner cites in more explicit terms what this Christian alternative entails. Beginning with an analysis of the competitive social world that capitalism creates, and the individual moral responsibility it emphasizes, Tanner moves on to the non-competitive nature of the Christian community, a regularly appearing feature of her earlier work. Unlike the relative worth assigned to individuals under capitalism, one’s worth in Christianity is never tied to personal accomplishment. She concludes, “gone thereby is any point in trying to gain some sort of competitive advantage over others by besting them in the pursuits of religious ends. One’s individual worth as graced by Christ is not fundamentally dependent on how one stands in relation to others” (6). The Christian life is not primarily about individual achievement, or more precisely one’s overly moralizing responsibility for personal progress, because all success is ultimately attributed to God.

What, finally, is Tanner’s vision for capitalism’s transformation? It appears most prominently to be a type of internal disruption whereby the Christian way of life infiltrates and subverts this finance dominance. While Tanner never goes into any practical solutions at length, she seems relatively confident in the availability of alternatives, whether laws, structures, or perhaps attitudes. She even noted that she believes grace is currently at work to empower “revolutionary change,” admittedly strong words deployed when the picture painted in her economic analysis seemed so bleak. While much of her lectures still require economists’ own critical reflections upon their contents, the creative use of Christian theology to counter today’s capitalism makes these lectures worth listening to and carefully reflecting upon their ideas; if Tanner’s economic insight is any indication, there is much work still to be done.

One can really only hope, as Tanner notes in the beginning of her series, that Weber (and her own analysis) was right in one regard: the capacity for Christian beliefs to radically change the economy. In the coming months, as these lectures are prepared for expansion in print, one can only share this hope that the lectures’ further elucidation will provide Christians and theologians interested in economics with a much-needed resource and dialog partner for countering the detrimental effects of capitalism.


[1] This earlier work lays much of the groundwork for the possibility of a relation between economics and theology. Tanner traces out the structure of modern economic thinking and compares it with the Christian story of creation and redemption where the notion of divine gift giving is central. This benevolent, beneficial gift – perhaps most importantly: unconditional gift – is the measuring stick used to critique the organization of capitalism (its dependence upon scarcity, for instance). See Economy of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).

[2] The parenthetical citations in this review refer the reader to the specific lecture in the series the quote came from (e.g. 3 would be her lecture titled “Total Commitment”).

[3] See Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).


For my summaries and analysis of each individual lecture, see here.