Category Archives: Reviews

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.

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.

Theologian Spotlight: Julian of Norwich

This post was written by Emilee Snyder, a Masters student at Princeton Theological Seminary specializing in Church History. It’s part of the “Theologian Spotlight Series.” Other posts in the series can be found here.

Ever since being introduced to the life and work of Julian of Norwich, she has quickly become one of my favorite, and most impactful, theologians. For me, the key to capturing the heart of Julian’s theology and legacy is to recognize her quiet modification of the character of the Godhead, reintroducing into medieval thought Trinitarian compassion and closeness, traits previously reserved strictly for Christ – this is precisely what I hope to convey in this brief post, for her innovations were momentous not simply in her time, but continue to be so in our time, as well. All communities, not simply late medieval Norwich, are enriched by the sound reminder of the divine pathos, particularly a context entrenched in suffering as Julian’s own community was.

julianJulian of Norwich (c. 1342 – c. 1416) was a female anchoress in fourteenth-century England, spending the later years of her life secluded in a cell adjoining a Norwich church so as to devote the entirety of her days to the contemplation of the Divine. Over the course of her religious experience, she received various “revelations” from God, recording these first in 1373; twenty years later, in 1395, she supplemented this shorter text with greater theological insights and subtle, yet sharp, theological innovations. These works, collected in Revelations of Divine Love, make up the gravity of her religious influence.

Before we tackle the great innovations of Julian, let’s begin with the theology she inherited (and ultimately revised). Any reader of Julian’s Revelations (or of mainstream medieval spiritual works in general – more on this to come!) will likely be struck by her emotional, vivid depictions of the suffering Christ, a dominant theme in most medieval forms of piety. This affectionate piety, or cruciform contemplation as I like to call it, passionately recalls the suffering of Christ so as to realize the magnitude of love displayed therein. For example, Julian graphically describes the “great drops” of Christ’s “thick, dark red” blood falling “from under the crown of thorns … as though they had come out of the veins.” His pierced and broken flesh, she continues, was “slashed all over” and “in weals from the scourging,” “[sagging] with its own weight from hanging for such a long time” as the grip of thorns and nails widened his fresh wounds.

Jarring as Julian’s imagery may be for modern readers, we must recognize this contemplative style as wholly normative in her time. For Julian, as with affectionate piety as a whole, these graphic images are evoked as expressions of Christ’s unfailing love for humanity, a love so vast that he was compelled to endure the pains of the cross. This suffering love is the heart of Julian’s cruciform piety, the realization of which is precisely the end of this spiritual pursuit. These two components are thus tightly tethered to one another: Christ’s “love for our souls is so strong that he chose the pain willingly and eagerly, and suffered it meekly and was well-pleased to do so,” she argues. Though agonizing and excruciating, Christ’s love for humanity, both individually and universally, was so infinite that enduring the passion was, in fact, nearly irresistible: “I truly saw that he was willing to die as often as he was able to die, and love would never let him rest until he had done it.”

In terms of Julian’s compliance with orthodox spirituality – so far, so good. From Anselm of Canterbury, to the Franciscan spiritual tradition, the humanness of Christ, his willful suffering and extravagant love therein was center stage in medieval devotion. At this point, it seems Julian is simply a product of her spiritual age. But let’s take another step back into medieval spirituality as a whole, briefly. For all of the unparalleled fixation on the suffering love of Christ, medieval piety was equally insistent on the righteous vengeance of God. The two, in fact, went hand in hand. For, the suffering Christ endured was ultimately to satisfy God’s wrath toward human sin, avenge the ultimate injury and offense committed by humanity. The selfless, cruciform love of Christ, in this scheme, necessarily implied a wrathful God with justice to settle.

Not so, for Julian.

With impressive boldness, Julian reconstructs the character of God so as to reintroduce the Trinity’s compassion, closeness, and kindness to a context accustomed to God’s wrath, justice, and vengeance. Commenting on the Trinity’s involvement in Christ’s suffering work, she dictates from her revelation that “Jesus wishes us to consider the delight which the Holy Trinity feels in our salvation.” She radically continues, “The whole Trinity took part in the Passion of Christ … dispending an abundance of virtues and fullness of grace to us through him.” Preserving God’s immutability, she clarifies that “only the son of the Virgin suffered,” yet her theological innovations are nonetheless sharp: that the whole of the Trinity was involved in the passion of Christ, that the Cross is ultimately revelatory of the Trinity, went far beyond traditional medieval thought. For, to suggest that the cross is ultimately revelatory of the Trinity is, for Julian, to posit that the Trinity itself is “nothing but love, compassion, and pity,” components of a divine characterization that differed drastically from prevailing understandings of God in her day, ones which centered on wrath, anger, and judgment. Herein is Julian’s masterful deviation.

That her audience was inflicted with countless trials makes this reconstruction particularly telling. By the time Julian wrote the Short Text in 1373, England had suffered through three episodes of the Black Death, a fatal epidemic that, some scholars argue, sliced the population in half by the end of the fourteenth century – intersecting these visitations of the plague in England was a harvest failure in 1369, that triggered economic decline and national disorder. All such trials simply exacerbated sentiments of divine wrath and eternal punishment; Julian’s emphasis on divine empathy, closeness, and compassion finds its antecedent here.

Julian even takes this a step further, extending the gracious companionship of God to the context of sin. Not only were the trials of Norwich not to be seen as punishment for sin, but sin itself was reconstructed by Julian as an accident incurred amid honorable duty, an event God looks at with pity and kindness, rather than fault and blame. The implications of this nuanced view of sin are unmistakable. Here, we have a female anchoress altering the reigning account of human failure to accentuate the unfailing companionship of the Godhead.

Julian is also frequently remembered for her “Christ as Mother” idea, calling Jesus “our true mother,” who feeds us “not with milk, but with himself, opening his side for us and claiming all our love.” Julian’s theological goals here are unchanged: by way of this maternal imagery for Christ, she further reiterates God’s nearness and compassion. That this maternal understanding of Christ is representative of the Trinity as a whole further reiterates Julian’s emphasis on an intimate God who is a companion and comfort in suffering and trials.

Julian’s resolve to affirm God’s compassion and closeness to a culture accustomed to the opposite, particularly amid suffering and confusion, is compelling to me. Sure, you and I may not be inflicted by the Black Plague, but to reduce Julian’s spiritual theology to her own context alone is, I believe, to miss her point entirely. It is rather a theology applicable to all Christians, societies, and ages, for there are instances for all of us when the vast love and close comfort of God seems all but true.

As Julian affirms, in fact, our errors often lay in our failure to see God right beside us, rather than our own flight from God. With a promise such as this, it’s easy to see why Julian is so insistent that all shall be well. There’s no better way to end this piece than with these very encouraging words from Julian herself:

There is a deed which the Holy Trinity shall do on the last day, and when that deed shall be done and how it shall be done is unknown to all creatures under Christ, and shall be until it has been done. And he wants us to know this because he wants us to feel more ease in our souls and more at peace in love, rejoicing in him and no longer considering all the tumults which might keep us from the truth. This is the great deed ordained by our Lord God from eternity, treasured up and hidden in his blessed breast, only known to himself, and by this deed he shall make all things well; for just as the Holy Trinity made all things from nothing, so the Holy Trinity shall make all well that is not well.

Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 6 “Which World?”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.

In the final lecture of the series, Kathryn Tanner aimed to tie up some of the loose threads from previous lectures and focus on what she thinks is the “individualizing, moralizing” aspect of capitalism and to dissociate Christianity from its practice. Capitalism today, she argues, focuses on individual responsibility and work on the self, such that praise and blame is directed toward individuals. But relation to self in those ways also presupposes relations to others, and is reinforced in the “social world” that capitalism creates. Her overall goal is to show that “the ways in which Christians bring together relations to oneself and relations with others have the potential to form an entirely different, other world – a world, by way of which, this one might be called fundamentally into question.”

The social mechanisms that form the subject in capitalism are done for the purpose of cost-cutting and profit maximization. For instance, workers receive performance based pay and have their tasks consistently evaluated. Governments too, Tanner insightfully points out, also leave people to fend for themselves. Welfare individualizes persons in moralizing ways when it is not given out as a right, but something only specific types of persons can claim through a contract with the state. Welfare is not given to a class of people, Tanner insists, but to certain individuals who agree to terms in return for benefits (e.g. search for work, or accept any job offer no matter what).

Returning to corporations, they make people compete with others. One is, potentially, in competition with all of the workers across the globe. Corporations give out rewards based upon relative benchmarks – surpassing co-workers’ performances gives you a pay raise. The standard of excellence is judged against the work done by one’s co-workers. Management might use bell-curves to assign reward, for instance, whereby over time the average shifts higher and higher because everyone is competing to be above it. Workers performing under the average are then laid off.

Individuals, in reality however, are dependent upon others to a great degree. Profit in finance depends upon the actions of others (i.e. others fueling demand), and profit comes from slightly beating the herd. In this way, traders may often act against their best judgment because others are acting in a particular way. What is best might not be the same as what is profitable due to following the actions of others in finance. In work life, workers often are encouraged to take credit for themselves what is actually a group effort. This is what allows people to receive raises and promotions, for instance, when they take credit for the team’s most important contributions.

In all of these ways, reward is not dependent on time and effort invested. There might be an incidental connection, Tanner concedes, but those who work the hardest are not necessarily the most well rewarded. Day laborers, for example, work quite hard but receive relatively nothing compared to others. In finance, profit is often the result of timing or the chance that comes along with luck even though traders take credit for their predictions. Rewards are just not distributed to one to the same degree as their effort differentiates them from other workers.

Directing her attention to Christianity for the rest of the lecture, Tanner thinks that Christianity doesn’t have much of a direct interest in a work ethic in capitalism. For most of Christian history, the church pushed people toward religious vocations and viewed all others as quite suspect. Other pursuits just distracted people from God, so that spiritual work was the end of all types of work. In the Reformation, pursuits were still ranked, but religious pursuits could now be done in any vocation (contra just religious vocations). The monastic life was less valued because devotion to God could be pursued while at any job. Still though, work is not valued in and of itself. Economic activity is not valued in its own right – this is what Weber argued too, that Reformed Christians could only advance capitalism to the extent they didn’t have purely economic interests. One still did work in the economic realm of life for the sake of other things (e.g. knowing whether one is elect, to use Weber’s example).

Others started to think that one’s job was assigned to them by God’s providence which meant value was given to specifically economic activity. One is to work hard at their job because it is God’s will they are assigned to it in the first place, for example. But this, Tanner cautions, has the potential to give religious justification to all sorts of work, regardless of how demeaning or unjust it happens to be.

Instead, Tanner thinks that it makes the most sense to think of salvation including the here and now, implying that the material world should be transformed in keeping with God’s efforts for universal benevolence. Grace, as she has noted in previous lectures, empowers one to make material changes. Religious commitments are still primary, but they can include all of the economic because the religious project is to transform all of life as a whole.

She thinks that an ethic of religious justice can be an anti-work ethic because success is God’s not ours. We can’t take credit for our religious success and therefore it is not merely a matter of individual responsibility, unlike in capitalism. Effort may be needed, but it is ultimately in God’s hands. Success, likewise, does not increase or decrease the worth of individuals. Moreover, our achievements in this life are relatively nothing compared to Christ’s perfection. Success is measured instead by conformity to God, but all are capable of the same success by virtue of sharing in Christ. In this way, the Christian life is non-competitive.

Tanner argues, “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,” contra how capitalism wants social relations to work. Assigning relative worth is never appropriate in Christianity because we are valued independent of relative standing to others. In religious terms, distinguishing oneself from others does not make one a better person. The competitive context of capitalism is not part of the kingdom of God.

Individual moralizing responsibility is neglected here because we are all creatures together, finite just as others are. Differences do not have this import in the Christian community because we share the same origin and the same fate. It is wrong to individualize, then, merit and reward, Tanner argues. This does not neglect individuality, however, because in Christianity God perceives us in our particularity, but our value in God’s eyes is not dependent upon relative achievements. She insists, “God does not love you more when you succeed than when you fail.”

We aren’t saved so that we can remain responsible for some objective. God doesn’t need anything from us. God wants us to live for God but that isn’t why we are saved. We are saved, in strict Tannerian fashion, just because God wants to share God’s own life with us. Our productive aim might be to live for God, but this belief need not mean we are to be fundamentally productive for any other means.

In fact, throughout much of Christianity, toil is associated with sin and the fall. This undermines any anthropology of production. Work, in Christianity, does not have to be a means to self-fulfillment, expression, or realization. There is instead a certain temperance with regard to work. We should be able to do things in freedom other than work, Tanner insists.

However, Tanner doesn’t think that usually given options for defying capitalism will succeed – like refusing to work and being intentionally unproductive or calling for a general work and debt strike. She doesn’t think either has the potential to ultimately undermine the negative aspects of capitalism.

Instead, Tanner thinks that Christianity forms an alternative world that can disrupt capitalism from within. In Christianity we depend upon one another in community but this dependence is mediated through Christ and the Church which propagates Christ’s own life today (a nod to Schleiermacher). We continue to struggle in sin, which is why we need Christ’s own influence and not merely the equally sinful influence of other human beings. Our influence often hinders the spread of life to others, and it is easy to sinfully substitute your own efforts for the influence of Christ. A mutually supporting community is ideal, but progress in the Christian life is possible even in sin-filled churches because we are primarily empowered to live for God by God, not others.

The church is non-competitive. Social relations are mediated through God, and members do not compete for goods. Salvation, for Tanner, should be enjoyed in community – “a community of enjoyment” – where grace is shared and collectively enjoyed by all. One enjoys God in whole, not in part. The Christian community is not based upon anything other than God and is thereby not hindered by human differences. We are drawn by sharing in the experience of God.

Tanner closes the series by summarizing what she attempted to do. She thinks Christianity is an imaginative counter to the world of capitalism. “The new world operates not at a remove from this one, but by cutting across it, traversing it to disruptive effects.” This is not just a deferred utopia or an alternative, but separate community (as other theologians have argued). “This other world has been present in the past and it is still here… already at work in the present with a voice whose force is yet to be extinguished.”

Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 5 “Another World”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.

Wrapping up her considerations of Capitalism’s temporal dimensions, Kathryn Tanner uses this fifth lecture to discuss the way one relates to the future in both Capitalism and Christianity. The future is a concern for capitalism for its ability to either make or break. But finance wants to collapse the future into the present such that the future is merely the outcome of the present. Traders and brokers have confidence that all of their complex financial instruments can allow them to anticipate the future. The future in this understanding is that which is given by the present. Future possibilities are constrained by the present whereby the future is just an extension of the present.

But market volatility seems to hinder these efforts. The value of stocks, for example, rises and falls constantly. The greater difference between the present and the future is what actually allows for the possibility of profit. Swings on markets are often extreme – they can wipe out a lifetime of gains in one moment or make one rich overnight – these large swings are rare, but extremely impactful (e.g. financial crisis of 2008). One’s actions in the present, in finance, are for the sake of the future. The present value of stock, for example, is a reflection of anticipated future value. Without anticipated future value, the demand for financial instruments is quite low.

In this way, the future must be calculable for present prices to reflect it. Reliably calculating the future, therefore, is the highest goal. But market volatility makes this difficult. So, often “ranges” of future value are given to describe the future’s range of possibilities. Traders, in fact, think they can predict future value all the time. But often this is actually the result of gauging stockholder opinion rather than actual market conditions in the future. If many people like the stock now, the price of that stock can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as demand perpetuates price. In other sectors of the economy, higher price means lower demand (e.g. high gas prices), but in finance the opposite is true. High prices increase demand and therefore increase the price further. This facet of financial markets can, however, Tanner argues, produce “bubbles” full of artificially pumped up prices that can result in quite catastrophic negative feedback loops.

Other more complex trading tactics like stock options or derivatives aim to get around these large differences in price present and future. One can take out a futures contract and buy (or decline to exercise their option) stocks in the future for a set price regardless of true market value. Derivatives similarly are meant to offset the risks and unpredictability of the future. But bets on these instruments just unload risk on insurers. These futures contracts and derivatives are meant to control the future so that it is dealt with in the present already. It is a pre-emptive warding off of the future, but this often fails because the future is unpredictable.

What might Christianity say to this? Tanner argues that Christians do not try to master the future in these ways because, for one, they know it will be great (e.g. new creation!). But Tanner doesn’t want to just focus on that aspect. The transformation between present and future is infinitely greater in Christianity because sin will be completely ripped away and all of our sinful attachments removed. In this life, we will always be repenting even if progress is made due to grace. In all of life’s ups and downs, we are dependent upon Christ’s grace. Enjoyment of God’s own life is impossible to be gained through human effort no matter how perfect one may be in holiness. No matter one’s present condition, Christians can bank on the future being radically different – indeed, Tanner argues that this is what makes it attractive: its difference from the present. The future is never to be collapsed into the present.

In Christianity, therefore, the future is much more important than in capitalism. We will live off the life of God. It is impossible to anticipate what this future life will be like because it is so radically different from the present. Tanner circumvents here a type of speculation regarding what resurrected life will be like. We can’t use current data to predict the future because it will be surprising from the point of view of the past and present. Though we don’t know specifics, we can be certain, Tanner argues, of resurrection itself because that is predicated on confidence in Christ.

Further, what Christians hope for isn’t based upon one’s current amount of progress. A grace-filled future does not depend upon how well one has done so far. A moral life is not a means to life with God, but the moral life is only possible because we are now alive in God. Life with God, enjoyed to a degree in the present, is also our final goal. One does not get to this goal through human success but through grace.

This is not escapism, Tanner cautions. The grace that exists now is the same that will exist in the future due to our current experience of life in Christ. This grace provides the possibility for change now because life in God begins now. Present hopes are fed by future eschatological hopes – ultimate hope drives present hope. The new world is only possible with God, not merely by the possibilities of the present. There is a gap between the two worlds but the other world need not be seen as absolutely separated from the current world; It can disrupt the present. One can hope on the ultimate success of their efforts because hope is really directed toward God whose success is guaranteed.