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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.

An In-Depth look at “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity,” by Kathryn Tanner – Part 1: “Jesus”

I’m doing a 4-part series on my favorite book, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity by Kathryn Tanner. I normally just write single reviews, but this book’s influence upon my life requires that I share some of its more important considerations for my readers. I’ll post in this series once per week, each devoted to a chapter in her short book. 

Jesus humanity and the trinityI’ve already written a short review of this work here, but I think this book deserves significantly more close attention than I’ve previously given it on this blog. The first chapter, titled “Jesus” outlines her basic concept of God, and then moves onto Jesus (duh!). She writes specifically on the Incarnation, discussing some of its existing theological problems along the way. Tanner then ends the work discussing the Christian idea of salvation, and how it is that Jesus saves. I’ll take each point in turn.

Her concept of God is, more or less, the bedrock of her entire theological project. Though she centers in on Jesus, and has even written a book on Christology called Christ the Key (see my review here), both perhaps giving one the impression that her starting point is Christ, Tanner’s thinking flows out from the character of God – if derived ultimately from the revelation of Christ. She begins, “At the heart of this systematic theology is the sense of God as the giver of all good gifts, their fount, luminous source, fecund treasury and store house…in establishing the world in relationship to Godself, God’s intent is to communicate such gifts to us” (p. 1). In her mind, the reason for creation is so that God can give God’s fullness to what is not God, i.e. all of creation. Moving on to the central theme of this chapter, Tanner thinks Jesus is the supreme measure of God’s gift to the world.

Her main task initially is resolving some christological problems. How is it possible for Jesus to be both fully God and fully Human? Theologians, in the past, have often insisted on either a high or low Christology, i.e. emphasizing Jesus’ divinity over against his humanity or vice versa. Tanner thinks this is all nonsense given the transcendence of God. God relates non-competitively with the human Jesus. The two natures do not “compete” with one another for space within Jesus, e.g there is not an inverse relationship between divinity and humanity in Christ. Though formulated in an incredibly unique and influential way for contemporary systematic theologians, Tanner really wants to return to patristic era christologies that stress the transcendence of God along with single subject predication of the actions in Jesus’ life (cf. Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria). In other words, in Jesus’ actions, it is NOT that some actions are the human and some are the divine; rather, all the actions of Jesus have a single reference point in the Word made human. “In Jesus, unity with God takes a perfect form; here humanity has become God’s own. That is the fundamental meaning of incarnation…” (p. 9).

We cannot divide the events of Jesus’ life between human and divine. Both divinity and humanity characterize all of his life. Divinity is “invisible” in Jesus similarly to how God’s acts are invisible in the rest of creation, i.e. looking at Jesus, one would see a human being. Yet, the manifestation of divinity in Christ comes by way of the saving effects of his life and its perfect character. The unity of Christ is not achieved by some sort of mixture between divinity and humanity, but that in the incarnation, Jesus’ humanity IS God’s (as I mentioned above). Jesus the human has no existence apart from the Word. Unlike us, his existence is IN God not merely FROM God. If this is who Jesus is, what does it imply about the nature of salvation?

Her christology is human-centered. This does not mean it is idolatrous (or “from below”), on the contrary, it means the problem in need of resolution is on the human side of things, not as some would say, on God’s side, e.g. a dilemma between God’s love and justice/wrath so that God is really just saving Godself from wiping out humanity (the problem is NOT that God must first punish his Son for our sin before God can love us). For Tanner, the point of the Incarnation is the perfection of humanity through union with God. “By way of this perfected humanity in union with God, God’s gifts are distributed to us – we are saved – just to the extent we are one with Christ in faith and love…” (p. 9). God is not changing God’s relation to us, per say, but rather God is changing our relation to God: we are brought to God in union with Christ.

This salvation, for Tanner, is a process. She is quite unique among classical western theologians in this way: salvation plays out over the course of Jesus’ life, not merely out of the cross, or the resurrection (even though she may admit those are the culmination of the incarnation). Through unity with the Word, the humanity of Jesus, and by way of Jesus our own as well, is in a sense deified or made perfect as the characteristics of divinity are communicated to Jesus’ humanity (a feature normally emphasized only in Eastern Orthodox expressions of salvation). “As Jesus’ life and death proceed, all these various happenings are made part of God’s assumption of the human, with purifying, healing, and perfecting effects. Each aspect of Jesus’ life and death, moreover, is purified, healed, and elevated over the course of time, in a process that involves conflict and struggle with the sinful conditions of its existence” (p. 27).

“The humanity of Jesus is therefore not perfected from the first as an immediate consequence of the incarnation, making Jesus’ struggles and sufferings something he merely decides to go along with… Jesus does not overcome temptation until he is tempted, does not overcome fear of death until he feels it, at which time this temptation and fear are assumed by the Word” (p. 28). In other words, all of the events of Jesus’ life take on a salvific character. This elevates the significance of Jesus’ time of ministry to a much higher degree than I’ve ever seen done before. This has extraordinarily beneficial implications for how the average Christian approaches the gospels for spiritual edification. One can view the individual occurrences of Jesus’ life and death as particular pieces of salvation that culminate in his death (e.g. his birth dignifies our births, his teaching save us from despairing learning, his love for outcasts and sinners extends God’s love in a most clearly visible way to those most in need of salvation, in anxiety he saves us from the damaging effects of our own, etc.). The cross is the culmination in that the word’s assumption of sin and death into itself results in the conquering of sin and death, and the erasure of its damaging effects upon our own nature.

For the sake of clarity, the cross is the culmination of the Incarnation, not the only saving moment in Jesus’ life. The cross does not save as an atoning sacrifice or as a vicarious punishment for sin. These conceptions are extraordinarily problematic for people today. “The cross saves because in it sin and death have been assumed by the one, the Word, who cannot be conquered by them” (p. 29).  In this way, the Word’s own life and perfection are communicated to Jesus’ humanity, and likewise to our own, even in the features, sin and death, which are most in need of salvation. This theology of the cross, is, moreover, a by-product of the whole of the incarnation developed thus far.

Through this process of incarnation, humans are saved by our unity with the humanity of Jesus made possible as the Spirit draws us to Christ in love. Over time, those same saving characteristics are communicated to ourselves in ways that allow us to live authentically human lives. Through this close association with Jesus, we enter into the Trinity, per-say, and our own lives take on the character of the Son of God as we are adopted as children of the Father by way of the Spirit uniting us to the Son. And with that, my readers must wait for part 2 as Tanner applies this logic of incarnation, and our resulting salvation, to “the ordinary affairs of human life” (p. 33).

Helpful links and resources:

Here’s a link to purchase your own copy of Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity.

For those more interested in Tanner’s conception of God, and especially her idea of the non-competitive relations between God and Creation, check out her first book God and Creation in Christian Theology written in 1988. Consult especially chapters 2 & 3 on God’s transcendence and God’s action within the world respectively.

For examples of patristic era formulations of salvation with a focus on the incarnation, check out Gregory of Nazianzus’ Orations 29-30 available online here or in print here as part of a collection of his most famous writings. Also worth familiarizing oneself with is Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ.

For secondary literature explaining some of Kathryn Tanner’s more famous concepts, check out the brand new volume of work celebrating her theology written by many of her former students. It’s called The Gift of Theology: The Contribution of Kathryn Tanner.

Christian Theological Perspectives on Joy, my review of “Joy and Human Flourishing”

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Joy and Human Flourishing: Essays on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life, eds. Justin E. Crisp and Miroslav Volf, Fortress Press, xviii + 155 pp. Link to purchase.

joy and humanThis little essay collection reflects a paradigm shift in the theological scene today. Theologians are beginning to think about the deeper questions of life rather than limit their discourse to doctrinal disputes from the past 2000 years. This edited volume brings together many of the foremost theologians and biblical scholars of this generation: Jurgen Moltmann, Charles Mathewes, N.T. Wright, Miroslav Volf, Marianne Meye Thompson and Mary Clark Moschella. Each author attempts to define joy, and then to work out a theology or framework of Christian joy from the perspective of their particular discipline.

Moltmann opens with a short chapter on the very nature of Christianity as “a religion of joy,” by emphasizing the celebratory character of one’s response to God’s blessings. It acts as an introduction to other contributor’s essays.

Marianne Meye Thompson identifies three versions of Joy in scripture that all end up centering around the idea of joy “because,” even the concept of joy “notwithstanding (some suffering)”; In this case, because of something God has done or because of who God is. N.T. Wright continues the biblical interpretation section of this book through his helpful discussion of joy as the response to God’s presence both now and in the future as a kind of hope. Yet, he is careful to distinguish the difference between the centrality of hope within second temple Judaism, in that it was always looking to what God will eventually do, with the way the first Christians aligned their perspective around joy, in that God, in Christ, has already brought his kingdom to earth. That salvation has been realized in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the cause for the Christian’s joy in the present.

Next, Charles Mathewes, as usual, develops his theological program on the basis of some Augustinian idea; in this case, desire. Most of the readers will be familiar with Augustine’s notion of infinite human desire that is only satisfied in God. Mathewes applies this to the idea of joy which he considers to be “in the middle voice,” that is, it is not fully something that happens to us nor something we do, but in-between. He argues that real joy is only possible when our desire is rightly oriented toward God, toward cultivating lives of flourishing for others, and that we experience joylessness when we place the hopes of our desire in what is not God.

For the more pastoral-minded chapter, Mary Clark Moschella identifies what she renders a problem with modern pastoral education. Pastors are only taught how to discover the good within the bad, and not, perhaps, the joy within the good. She thinks this one-sidedness has actually contributed to a less joy-filled society than if pastors were comfortable strengthening into joy the perceived experiences of well-being within their congregants and those they care for.

Finally, Miroslav Volf adds a final summation of the theologian’s project of joy. He connects, as do all of the other authors, the idea of blessing/gift to joy. When one has the ability to experience life, including all of its goods, as “blessing,” one can have joy knowing that this is how life was designed by God.

Overall, this book is significant because, as I mentioned initially, it represents some of the firstfruits of this paradigm shift towards articulating the Christian vision of flourishing humanity. Further, the caliber of the individual contributors is another important reason why many Christians, and scholars of religion, cannot afford to miss out on the insights available here, all in one place thanks to the editorial efforts of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture as well as doctoral fellow Justin Crisp. I certainly look forward to the other books the Center publishes in the coming years as the results of their John Templeton Foundation grant to research theology and joy. You won’t want to miss those either.

Review of Joerg Rieger’s “Globalization and Theology”

Joerg Rieger, Globalization and Theology, Abingdon Press, 2010, 63 pp. Link to purchase here.

globalization and theologyJoerg Rieger is currently professor of constructive theology at Southern Methodist University, but he will be moving to join the faculty of Vanderbilt University in the fall of 2016 as a professor of constructive theology. His work is well known in the academy, and in the field, as working creatively with the issues of our time. This short book is certainly no exception.

I came to this book expecting a constructive theology of globalization or a theological response to globalization. However, Rieger’s work is mostly an examination, through the lens of Christian theology, of various models of globalization and their implications. Many, like myself before reading Rieger’s work (or really before reading any real literature on globalization), thought of globalization primarily in terms of technology and communication. For me, the real issue for theology and globalization was the close proximity of different religious traditions and the proliferation of western technology throughout the world. While this is indeed part of globalization, much more of it has to do with economic systems (i.e. spread of free-market capitalism), culture, and power differentials.

One may expect forces of globalization to increase the well-being of all people as wealth is distributed across the world. This is not the case in reality. The truth is, economic difference has widened and even those in so-called developing nations do not benefit unless they are the ones making deals with the major industrial corporations or the ones trying to incorporate western culture into their midst. Rieger addresses the issue of globalization primarily through evaluating types of power structures.

“The dominant forces of globalization often proceed by erasing and eliminating alternatives. Alternative forms of globalization not only resist this move and encourage diversity but also encourage fresh visions of unity in diversity.” – p. 3.

He criticizes the top-down hard power paradigms exemplified in the Roman Empire and during the Spanish Inquisition at the same time he highlights how these empires influenced Christian theology and vice versa. Though we have largely removed (at least for the moment) this sort of hard power globalization through force, there are still widespread soft power aspects that work to the detriment of the many and benefit of the few. Rieger analyzes all the ways soft power, most obviously manifest through differences in economic capital, affects various regions of the world and what theology can do to provide an alternative vision.

“The empire eradicates the narratives of Jesus’ life and ministry in a specific context, at a specific time, in solidarity with the people, in order to present Jesus as a God who matches the principles of classical theism, such as impassibility, immutability, and omnipotence…[They] make no reference to the life and ministry of a Jewish construction worker called Jesus who announced an alternative kingdom – called the Kingdom of God – where the last will be the first and the first will be the last.” – p. 20.

While most of the book, or perhaps long essay of 63 pages, is devoted to critiques of the ways Christianity has worked hand in hand with empire, the more positive, constructive element of Rieger’s work resides in providing an alternative vision for the method of globalization which he calls the “bottom-up.” As the name suggests, it does not start with power concentrated in a small few, but with the common people. Rieger draws upon his own Methodist background to make a few points about the bottom-up vision of John Wesley. He also tries to make us think much more about the life of Jesus, and not merely the cross of Jesus or his ontological status as God. When one looks toward the life of Jesus for theological resources for globalization, one finds the divine in the margins, among the poor, sick, and outcast. Jesus was continuously fighting against the elite of his time whether it was the temple leadership or the Roman Empire as occupying force. This model of Jesus’ life, for Rieger, is much more promising going forward.

In fact, this underside, perspective from below, is where God has always been at work in the great traditions of Christianity: in the Exodus, the prophetic tradition, and in Jesus’ own life within the context of an oppressed people group dominated by the larger empire around them. If this is where God is, then, according to Rieger, theology must be located there as well and not among the powerful elite intent on maintaining the status quo of extreme power differentials.

The book is extremely short, so one should definitely not look to it as a complete system of thought. Rieger has written elsewhere more extensively on similar topics, notably his books “Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude” and “No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future” which readers should consult for a more complete image of Rieger’s alternative vision to the dominant top-down power model in our globalized world. Nonetheless, this book is extremely important as a conversation starter, and it works as a suburb introduction to the arena of theology in dialogue with power structures and globalization, one of the prime issues to face in the world today.

Early Church Christology. “On the Incarnation” by Athanasius of Alexandria.

Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. John Behr, St. Vladimir’s Press, 2011, 110 pp. Link to purchase here.

“… with death holding greater sway and corruption remaining fast against human beings, the race of humans was perishing, and the human being, made rational and in the image, was disappearing, and the work made by God was being obliterated … it was therefore right not to permit human beings to be carried away by corruption, because this would be improper to and unworthy of the goodness of God.”

Athanasius iconFor those of you unfamiliar, Athanasius was an early Church father who lived from ca. 299-373, and was bishop of the ancient see of Alexandria (one of the 5 ancient sees of Christianity) beginning in 328 just after the first council of Nicaea (325). He was bishop for a total of 46 years, but was exiled at least 5 times for a total of 17 years. Because he lived during a period of great intensity and debate within the Church, along with its local shifts in loyalty and theological persuasion, Athanasius had to go through a lot of difficulty to establish orthodoxy in Northern Africa. He wrote a few other works which should be read closely (especially Against the Gentiles), but On the Incarnation is perhaps the most influential work of Christian theology in history. Yes, I mean ALL of history. Except the New Testament of course!

Without a doubt, this book is an absolute must read by all Christians everywhere both lay and clergy. This translation is highly accessible even to the untrained layperson, whom Athanasius had in mind when writing (it is also barely 60 pages of text). It is in this way a basic explanation of the Christian faith, which Athanasius understood as centered around the Incarnation. This focus, however, does not keep him from touching upon other topics such as creation, or the Old Testament. Once again, I cannot overstate how important this work of theology is to both you and I because it gives us a firsthand look into the mind of one of the early Church fathers right at a turning point within Christianity.

First, a bit of historical context. Christians proclaim that Christ, literally God, was crucified. Though a common proposition today, in the ancient world this would have been unthinkable. Gods for one do not come down to be with humans (scandal #1), and gods most surely did not die the death of criminals (scandal #2). For the non-Christian world, the crucified Christ was not deserving of worship; on the contrary, one should surely mock such a degradation of the gods’ nature. So, to the common person, Athanasius must give explanation to the Incarnation, the central proposition of the Christian faith. How could he explain to both Jews and Romans that God actually came as a human being? But more importantly for Athanasius, WHY did God become incarnate? Theses are the two chief questions to be answered.

“It is first necessary to speak about the creation of the universe and its maker, God, so that one may thus worthily reflect that its recreation was accomplished by the Word who created it in the beginning. For it will appear not at all contradictory if the Father works its salvation in the same one by whom he created it.”

on the incarnationAthanasius writes that God created in order to give life to humans. Though, according to Athanasius, human beings before the fall naturally tend toward death, God gave them a special grace which allowed them to have sustained life with God as long as they continued to live according to that grace. But, as the story goes, humanity fell away from this grace and chose evil in its place. This transgression, as Athanasius calls it, relegated humans back to decay and death. But God willed that humans have life. Nonetheless, humans continued to devise even greater evils among themselves, furthering their demise. It is at this point when Athanasius evokes God’s love for us. For it would have been better had humans “not come into being rather than to have come into being to be neglected and destroyed.” In short, God would not let his creation destroy itself like this. However, given our state of corruption, mere repentance would not be enough. We may cease from sinning due to repentance, but this would not be powerful enough to reverse our eventual decay into death. We needed God to come and provide life.

“…our own cause was the occasion of his descent and our own transgression evoked the Word’s love for human beings. For we were the purpose of his embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body.”

Thus it was that the Word became incarnate in order to give us the life we had lost (it’s interesting that, for Athanasius, our transgression provoked the LOVE of God, not the WRATH of God… take note). To save us from death, the Word had to die itself, but this time, it wouldn’t be a pointless death but one in which the Word, by its divine nature, could transform all of humanity through the resurrection and return to us a hope for a resurrection.

The second approach that Athanasius uses is an explanation of our situation of ignorance and God’s desire for us to have knowledge. Our sins led us into further ignorance of who God was, and the giving of the law in itself was not sufficient to lead us back along the correct path. For the restoring of our knowledge, we needed a simpler means of divine self-communication, hence the Incarnation and God’s appearance as a human being who could be understood.

Athanasius then devotes the remaining section of his book towards giving explanation to the effects of the death and resurrection of Christ. Because Christ was united to human nature in death and resurrection, our own existence was in a way sanctified by the Word’s assumption of our nature.

“… the Savior raised up his body and he is the true Son of God, who in the last time took a body for the salvation of all, and taught the world about the Father, destroyed death, granted incorruptibility to all through the promise of the resurrection, raising his own body as first-fruits of this and showing it as a trophy over death and its corruption by the sign of the cross.”

Though simple, Athanasius’ work cannot be underestimated. It gave expression to Christian belief at a time it was desperately needed. Today, it is a necessary read to get behind the dogma of our own day to the theology of the early Church. In this way, one can understand that some of what is being preached today is actually not what the Church has historically believed, and can gain a much greater appreciation for the historical roots of Christianity through reading a book that has lasted 1700 years, standing the test of time. The difference between Athanasius’ beliefs and those of your own church do not have to nullify your pastor’s preaching, but can instead form a nice background of Christian theology to appreciate and learn from. I simply cannot recommend enough that every Christian read this work at least once in their life. It is simple, yet profound as it picks apart and explains the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith.

Check out another one of my most recent reviews on Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise and its importance for us today.

Contemplating the Trinity. A Review of Sarah Coakley’s “God, Sexuality, and the Self.”

A Critical Review of Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, xxi + 365pp. (link to purchase).

God sexuality and the self coverSarah Coakley’s work is a quite exciting rendition of both what it means to do theology and reflection upon the nature of the Trinity. As the first in a planned 4-volume series of systematics, broadly titled “On Desiring God,” the project remains incomplete, but Coakley’s work in this first volume already intends to promise a momentous shift in the conception of what modern systematic theology should be all about. This relatively new method, dubbed théologie totale, seeks to recognize the multifaceted layers of theology and to uncover both surprising findings from new procedures of historical/social analysis and creative constructions of doctrine for the modern age. While her written results are not always as clear as one would hope considering her intention to shift the whole discipline, the result is nonetheless the beginning of much anticipation for the completion of her project in the upcoming years.

The first third of the book is largely devoted to questions of method. Her conception of the particularity of the modern situation compels her to reimagine the task of theology. She writes, “if necessary, one must start from a new perspective if this is the best way to recapture the contemporary imagination for Christ, or to re-invite reflection on the perennial mysteries of the gospel” (p. 41). While such a correlation between the contemporary situation and the theological task is as old as the gospel itself, Coakley’s proposal for a théologie totale is certainly new as a method for doing systematic theology. Her approach promises to take into consideration the multi-layered nature of Christian belief and practice, wherein approved doctrine is not limited only to its official creedal expression, but is lived out politically, ecclesially, and culturally. In short, her conception of theology is one in which the theologian’s task is not to propose monolithic doctrines, but is rather part of the whole Christian quest for God. It is theology in via. Coakley is cognizant of the main modern criticisms of systematic theology, namely, its supposed totalizing, hegemonic, and patriarchal nature. Attuned to a théologie totale, and a stress upon the necessity of prayer, Coakley aims to ward off these anxieties while offering her own constructive formulations of the Trinity.

Coakley’s Trinitarian starting point is Romans 8 and Paul’s discussion of the Spirit praying within the believer. Naming this model an “incorporative Trinity,” Coakley weaves together biblical exegesis, and the experience of the contemplative is given primacy. In contemplation, Coakley argues, the Christian is aware of the activity of the Spirit in incorporating the believer into the life of God, reordering their passions and desires along the way. It is here that Coakley wedges the issues of sexuality and gender. While only teased out in-depth toward the end of the book, from the beginning Coakley is fond of noting that the threeness of the Trinity subverts our notions of binary gender; her remarks are “a theory about gender’s mysterious and plastic openness to divine transformation.” Gender, like desire more fundamentally, is to be reworked through the Spirit – yet the exact outcome of such reordering of desire remains ambiguous, though perhaps this is more of a note about the freedom of the Spirit to work as it wills than a fault of Coakley’s own argument. An odd silence remains, however.

In her chapter on the patristic development of the Trinity, she is quick to point out that the incorporative Trinity model is present alongside more linear models (the “textbook” version as she puts it) of the Trinity in church history. She recognizes that groups like the Montanists who placed a great emphasis on the Spirit, were always in danger from suppression by the evolving, yet more hierarchal-ordered church. Giving free rein to the Spirit, then, threatened the order of official doctrine and church unity – at least from the perspective of the Church authorities.

Yet Coakley is undeterred. She argues that “there is something, admittedly obscure, about the sustained activity of prayer that makes one want to claim that it is personally and divinely activated from within, and yet that that activation (the Spirit) is not quite reducible to that from which it flows (the Father)” (p. 112). While Coakley is intent to qualify her statements as not merely based upon subjective experiences in prayer, there remains the worry that Coakley has not adequately given explanation to the type of prayer she has in mind. What exactly is contemplative prayer for Coakley? What does it entail the believer do? Does evert contemplative have this same success in recognizing the Trinity? While generally consistent, these types of foundations seem missing given the gravity of prayer for her conception of the Trinity. If the details are a bit foggy at times, Coakley tries to make up for this by illustrating its effects – namely, incorporation into the Trinitarian life of God and conformation to Christ by the Spirit.

Perhaps the two most unique chapters, at least for systematicians, follow her methodological and patristic reflections. Through these two analyses, Coakley aims to show that “doctrine always has an imbedded texture, a set of subliminal cultural and societal associations and evocations, as well as its ‘plain’ meaning.” She enters into a detailed notebook of her own fieldwork examining the character of imbedded theology by spending time at a sectarian charismatic church and a spirit-friendly Anglican church. In keeping with her théologie totale method, Coakley understands fieldwork to be part of discerning the layered nature of Christian belief as it is found in local congregations. Her work yields insight on the differences in Trinitarian practice between ‘sect’ and ‘church’ type communities, but paints an admittedly more complex picture of Trinitarian implications. Moving toward a lengthy chapter on the history of visual representations of the Trinity, Coakley argues for the need to keep open imaginative possibilities. Christian art, she notes, is not merely an illustration of already settled truths. On the contrary, it has its own role in adding content to the Church’s theological reflection. While she is not claiming to uncover the entire context of her selections, Coakley’s focus on art is at times quite illuminating, especially for the theologian unexposed to the levels of a théologie totale.

Concluding with more direct reflections on a constructive rendition of the Trinity, Coakley highlights the yearning within God as the foundation for human desire and yearning. In the Trinity, divine desire gives rise to the Trinitarian persons through a sort of reflexive sourcing such that the Father as source is only confirmed by the Son and Spirit, therefore constituting, in a sense, the Father’s identity. She adds a few remarks to the filioque controversy, claiming that both sides of the argument get it wrong because the debate is presupposed upon the Spirit being an excess (rather unnecessary to the other two persons) rather than constitutive of the Trinity itself as Coakley has attempted to argue throughout. Divine desire, the source of human longings, becomes the starting point both for her systematic project and the human quest for God itself.

Overall, Coakley’s work is extraordinarily interesting, both for its written style and method. While readers of systematic theologies might normally expect long, detailed analysis of philosophical language or step by step rationalistic deductions so as to get an accurate presentation of doctrine, Coakley’s work does not function quite the same way. Her book is more of an exploration into the nature of Trinitarian belief, its imbedded structure in human life, rather than a dogmatic formulation and development of the doctrine itself. Apart from the somewhat worrisome lack of precision in describing the process of incorporative prayer, or the results of this new life in God as Trinity (its gender bending results, for example), any reader will benefit from her analysis of the Trinity. Her call for a shift in method ought to give rise to eager anticipations for how a théologie totale impacts her discussion of the other theological categories as her systematic project is completed in the coming years.