Critical Theology by Carl A. Raschke

In Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis, Carl Raschke uses the analogy of a black hole to describe how everything we know or think we know approaches an event horizon beyond which we cannot see, but where we know there to be a massive power source of creative destruction. He was using the analogy to describe the disparate field of “religious studies,” but I think it’s an apt description of the book itself.

I enjoyed this book more than I understood it. This is perhaps to be expected from a book that does not intend to describe something as much as to predict the forthcoming emergence of a new philosophical perspective. Raschke sorts through important perspectives and methodologies of the past century, praising their strengths but pinpointing weaknesses, in order to lay out the need for a “critical theology” to properly assess and address the post-secular globalized context we now find ourselves in. He gives excellent overviews of the development of critical theory, political theology, the secular-theological approaches of Zizek and Badiou, and religious studies, showing how each has contributed but nonetheless falls short of being able to understand our current realities. Like postmodernism and postsecularism, Raschke’s agenda is therefore primarily negatively defined, often dealing in nuances so fine that it’s difficult to tell how he hopes we’ll move past an existing theoretical approach. Throughout, and as often happens when I read books that push my comprehension, I experienced moments of elation: brilliant vistas of complex and abstract insight. I really do think he’s onto something here.

The crux of his argument for a critical theology, building on the secular theologies of Zizek and Badiou, is the way in which the incarnation and cross of Christ changes everything, providing the event that empowers existing theories ranging from the semiotic to the psychoanalytic to the political. On that we certainly agree. What he wants to do with that, or how exactly the Christ event changes us by elevating otherness, is only loosely sketched; presumably it will be worked out in an entire era of theory. I look forward to it!

Technically/stylistically, there were a number of errors that made an already dense read a little frustrating. Abstract theory is hard enough without misspellings. I also felt that he could have brought his thoughts together into a stronger conclusion, particularly because a good summary of his thoughts would have made the book much more accessible to the lay reader. That said, if you want a jumping-off point to study critical theory, Habermas, Heidegger, Zizek, Badiou, Lacan, or political theology, this book gets just enough into each of them to spark interest. Perhaps I’ll dig into each of them at some point, and revisit this book with a stronger foundation.

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Tribe, by Sebastian Junger

Tribe had me instantly hooked, and I think that it’s the most important book I’ve read this year. The scope of this book is amazing: in only 136 pages it covers issues ranging from war and PTSD to social institutions and politics to work/life balance and family to rituals in tribal societies. It seems like everything Sebastian Junger is talking about in this book is directly relevant to me and my thought processes in the last few years, which not only makes it clear why I found it so engrossing but also deserves explanation.

The central premise of Tribe is that human beings have spent most of our evolutionary history as tribal people who live in groups of around 50 deeply interdependent people, and that much of our social and psychological malaise today is rooted in the fact that this is no longer the case. Our wealth and technology have allowed us to become individualistic and self-serving, balancing the benefits of less physical need and disease with sharp increases in mental and social disorder. Money cannot buy us happiness, and in many ways it actually costs us our happiness.

Junger begins by reflecting on the fact that early European settlers in North America ran off to join indigenous tribes with alarming frequency, and even prisoners of war who had been taken by the tribes often refused to be repatriated into settler society, sometimes even sneaking back to join their former captors. Meanwhile, there was no traffic the other way: nobody was lining up to join “civilization”, even with all of its technological advances. Indigenous culture was very egalitarian and free; European culture was based on strict rules and laws that regulated every aspect of life under hierarchical structures of authority. Tribal life had relatively little work, while the pilgrims worked exhaustively. European settlers almost invariably held the notion that they were better off than the “savages” – but those who had experienced tribal life tended to never come back.
Junger goes on to talk about war and disasters. As a war reporter over the last 30 years, he’s seen a lot of war zones and noticed that soldiers, and even civilians in war zones, often miss the war. This is because they had such close and intimate bonds with the people around them during those difficult times, when common needs and the drive to survive tear down all social divisions and hierarchies. In the wake of an earthquake, or when a city is besieged, people look out for each other in ways that they don’t in good times. That social cohesion has an incredible psychological effect. During the Blitz of London, for example, the government had expected people to break down under the strain in large numbers, but the reality was that admission to mental hospitals went down. In a study of child soldiers, those children who returned from war to socially integrated societies mostly recovered, sometimes completely; but children who returned from war to socially stratified villages remained traumatized. Chronic PTSD, he suggests, is an issue of disordered recovery, not an automatic result of trauma; short-term PTSD is a normal response to trauma, but chronic PTSD, which is increasingly common even among troops that see relatively less action in war, has a lot to do with the fact that soldiers are unable to properly integrate into our individualistic, materialistic society where the close bonds they had with their unit no longer exist.

Why is this relevant to me? Aside from thinking a great deal about war and peace, trauma, social psychology, and policy, I have also recently made very large changes to my life because I have become disillusioned with the way that we live and work in our society.

Less than a year ago, I had a career. I had reached the Director level in my profession, and was making plans to pursue a PhD. I was doing everything right: at 30 years old I was moving upward, had a Master’s degree, had built my first house and had no other debt, and was married with one child. If I carried on that trajectory, “success” in life was virtually guaranteed. Except that in order to get that Master’s degree and that job, my wife and I had to move very far from our families; to pursue that PhD we would need to move farther still; and that my passions were only incidental to my career, so even if I could get a job in my field of study it would be low-paying and obscure, which meant that I would probably always be pursuing my passions at the expense of either my career or my family or both. My passions, then, took a backseat to family and career; and eventually, family took a backseat to career too.

No career is worth losing your family. It seemed that in order to pursue work that seemed meaningful, we had to be willing to be separated from our tribes. This seemed okay at first, when it was just the two of us, but as time wore on we missed our parents, siblings, and cousins. When I was growing up I was very close with a lot of my cousins, but at this point I haven’t seen some of them in over 5 years, and I’m not sure we’ve all been together in 15. Now we’re spread over three provinces, going where the work is or getting pushed out of places with high living costs. I miss them with a depth that shocks me to acknowledge. My parents come to visit, but their ability to travel is not unlimited, and video calls are no replacement for a tribe. Once we had a child of our own, the lack of close family bonds and support became so much more apparent; we felt we couldn’t be good parents without having grandparents around too. Because my son deserves his grandparents, and they deserve him.

So at the beginning of this year we moved away from our careers (my wife was also at the Director level in her department) and settled in my wife’s home province. Crashing on your in-laws’ couch for months, unemployed, is a far cry from working overtime at an “important” job, but it was surprisingly fulfilling. We had moved based on the instinct that our “successful” life wasn’t what it seemed, and even while my self-worth plunged on the basis of being unemployed and homeless, I found a growing sense of connection with my own little tribe, my wife and son, that was deeper and more powerful than any sense of purpose and self-worth that I had gleaned from my career.

My priorities have completed shifted this year. My goal is to find a job that allows me to be at home as much as possible, and I’m just starting a job that allows me to work only two days per week. I’ve been thinking about the need for jobs like that quite a bit over the past year: in an information economy in which information is cheap, producers of information either need a Guaranteed Livable Income (Mincome) or part-time work that pays a living wage but still gives them time to be productive in their own field. I’ve unexpectedly come across the latter, and I’m looking forward to being a family man five days a week and writing during nap times.

A few days after I was hired for this incredible new job packing cheese two days per week, and as I was still coming to terms with how that would reorient my life away from being centred on work and toward being centred on my family, I picked up Tribe and suddenly every hard choice we’ve made over the past year made sense. This book has given me a conceptual framework within which to understand and express why I was so dissatisfied with a seemingly successful life, why we were so motivated to put family first, and why, somehow, our society needs to find a way to help other people to make that priority shift if we want to address the growing social and psychological problems we face.

Tribe is a short, page-turning read about a host of pressing issues, translating anthropological and psychological research into a very accessible and concise narrative. Five stars.

You can listen to Sebastian Junger talking about the book here.

The Church as a Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point (2000) is a fascinating exploration of how ideas spread. Given its incredible popularity, it’s just as fascinating that we don’t seem to have done much with this information over the past fifteen years. I picked up the book thinking that it would be a good primer on the sociological notion of “tipping points” or “threshold theory” to explore in conjunction with Walter Wink’s theology of the Powers and Principalities (which turned out not to be the case), but the implications of this book for the church immediately jumped out at me. I’ll give a brief outline of the book, examine its implications for the church, and then explore the notion of the church as a tipping point in society.

The basic idea of Tipping Point is that ideas and behaviours spread like epidemics. A disease tends to spread slowly until a certain point, often called the “tipping point”, at which it starts to spread exponentially. The same thing is true of ideas or behaviours: a fad or trend is a behaviour or fashion or product that went from relative obscurity to being totally commonplace, usually in a short amount of time. Some trends stick around forever and become a real social change; others are fads that disappear as quickly as they began; but Gladwell is interested here in how they spread.

A social epidemic is the result of one or more of the following: “The law of the few” (certain types of people who make ideas contagious); “The stickiness factor” (what makes an idea stick with us enough that we pass it on); and “The power of context” (an environment that encourages or causes a particular behaviour).

The Law of the Few

We’re well familiar with the law of the few, which states that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. When it comes to spreading social epidemics, Gladwell distinguishes three categories from within the 20%: Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen.

A Maven is someone who is in the know – the type of person who nerds out on a particular subject, learning about it for its own sake, collecting bits of information like they’re pokemon. The Maven is the person you go to when you have a question or need advice on a particular subject. We all have a friend who is a “car guy”, who probably isn’t a mechanic but knows everything about every model of car, and if you were going to buy a car you’d probably get their advice. Mavens do the hard work of digging up the idea or information that influences the idea.

A Connector is that person who knows everyone. They have a million acquaintances, and if they hear that you’re headed for a lovely holiday in Cleveland (because who doesn’t love The Cleve, and your travel maven friend has already told you all the best spots to hit there) they’ll give you the contact info for someone they know there who can give you a personal tour and put you up for the night. Connectors bring together not only a wide range of people, but often people from a variety of fields or walks of life, which means that they can connect ideas as much as people. Connectors get people and ideas together, where they can proliferate.

A Salesman is someone who can, well, sell an idea. They have an infectious personality that impacts people on an emotional level, often just by being in the same room. These people are influential not because of what they know (like the Maven), or who they know (like the Connector), but by merely being themselves. Through unconscious things like micro-motor mimicry and social/psychological cues, we take these people and their ideas seriously and find ourselves agreeing.

The Stickiness Factor

But no matter how good the salesman, no matter how connected or complex the knowledge or idea, it has to be something that sticks with people if it’s going to spread. It is very important to note that stickiness has nothing to do with the actual truth or value of the idea: some of the most important ideas in history remain open secrets, simply because the way they’ve been presented doesn’t stick with people. Meanwhile, some really terrible ideas and falsehoods are almost universally accepted because they connect with people on a fundamental level.

Stickiness is largely about psychology, and the examples Gladwell uses are Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, both of which were designed by child psychologists to be sticky for kids in order to keep their attention and, hopefully, teach them something. Each episode of these shows is thoroughly analyzed by a team who studies the reactions of children in test audiences, including tracking their eye movement and distractability, their response to repetition, etc. Gladwell’s point is that many of the things that make kids love these shows, and that make them remember them, are counter-intuitive. Nobody believed, for example, that taking long, long pauses and speaking slowly would make for an interesting show: adult attention spans are geared toward fast-paced shows with lots of content. But not only does Blue’s Clues have a snail’s pace, they play the same slow episode five days in a row, and kids love it. Those aspects of the show play directly to a kid’s developing brain, in which a slow pace and repetition helps kids develop the ability to construct sequences, form concepts, and remember things.

Gladwell’s point is not that we should all watch Blue’s Clues (though it might not hurt), but rather that the psychology of what makes something stick with us is not always obvious. We need to understand our audience and present our message accordingly. Some tricks: the more your audience can relate to the message (even something as simple as connecting the idea to their own town or neighbourhood), and the more engaged someone is (making them play a game with the information, or even just take notes with a physical pen and paper), the more something will stick. Teachers and preachers and politicians and advertising agencies have all studied this, and we’re getting very good at making messages stick.

The Power of Context

One of the things that shapes us and our thoughts the most is the context or environment around us. We talk a lot about the impact of nurture, as though parents can program their children (“raise up a child in the way that they should go…”), but we tend to neglect or ignore the rest of our context (peer influence, political climate, physical environment).

As an example of the power of context, Gladwell looks at the New York crime wave of the 80’s and 90’s, which declined very suddenly and rapidly without a clear cause. One criminologist suggested the “broken window effect”: a broken window in a home or business gives everyone passing by the impression that nobody cares for that building, and even that nobody is in charge (i.e., nobody takes responsibility to fix it). This functions, on a subconscious level, as a type of permission: nobody did anything about one broken window, so maybe I’ll break a window too. Using this theory, New York authorities launched a campaign to clean up major crimes like stabbings by tackling little crimes, like graffiti and fare jumping in the subway. Attention to little things in the environment had a major effect on the people, and major crimes reduced drastically. (I should point out that Freakonomics has challenged this theory, but it’s a digression here.)

Another example Gladwell gives of the way context shapes our behaviour hits close to home. A study of this concept featured Seminary students who were giving lectures on the story of the Good Samaritan. Before their lecture was supposed to start, some were told that they had extra time while others were told that they were already late. On the route to the lecture hall, the experimenters had positioned someone dressed as a homeless person who pretended to be in obvious distress, so that the seminarians would have to walk right past them. Of those who were told they had extra time, 63% stopped to help the person; of those told they were already late, only 10% stopped to help. Obviously these pastors-to-be are aware of the command to love thy neighbour as thyself – they were going to teach others to do that very thing! – but something in their context shaped the way their eyes saw the scene, their perception of other people and needs in relation to their own.

Some Criticism of the North American Church

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, because I don’t think I want the church to be a social epidemic like a fad (I think one of the reasons that it’s so shallow in North America is because it is pretty fad-ish already), but there are some obvious things we can learn here to address the much lamented notion that the church is in decline in North America.

  1. We’ve cut out the theology mavens. The North American evangelical church has a history of anti-intellectualism, and while the extent of this viewpoint varies from one denomination to the next, at the parishioner level it is extremely common. In my own tradition (Pentecostalism), one of the founders of my movement quit school because he believed that his learning was interfering with his ability to be led by the Holy Spirit. Theology mavens still exist – there are more seminarians than there are churches to pastor – but they often sit quietly in churches where their input is not welcomed, much less sought out. Increasingly, they leave evangelical denominations for other traditions in which their knowledge is valued, following the “Canterbury Trail” to the Anglican tradition, or the “Road to Rome” (Roman Catholicism), or increasingly, seeking the contemplative and mystic traditions of the Orthodox church. The church is full of highly important knowledge and ideas, and there are plenty of theology mavens to spread them around, but they’ve been almost systematically silenced or marginalized. (One solution, I would argue, is to increase education requirements for clergy; in my experience, churches that have highly educated clergy do not have the same level of anti-intellectualism.)
  2. We’ve limited the connectors. A connector is a person who has their feet in a lot of different circles, but the insular nature of North American evangelical culture tries to bring all aspects of society into a shared, smaller, christianized circle. Rather than Christians rubbing shoulders with people with different backgrounds and ideas at business events, we have Christian business events. Christian music, movies, societies, businesses, publishers, shipping companies (yup, even there)…for a connector in the church, there may only be one circle: the church itself. We have never lacked for connections within the church, but we should not be surprised at our lack of connections to the world when we’ve worked so hard to create a subculture that is insulated so thoroughly from it.
  3. We’ve overstated the abilities and responsibility of our salesmen. One of the things that Gladwell points out is that when marketers saturate one particular form of connection, it becomes so commonplace that we tune it out. We screen our calls to avoid telemarketers, and filter our emails to avoid spam, and refuse to make eye contact with people handing out flyers (or preaching redemption) on the street. The Protestant church has always emphasized the role of preaching, and the North American evangelical church in particular has always celebrated our preachers. We have no lack of salesmen, and we’ve honed the craft to an incredible extent, but I think we’ve saturated the potential for that format. Even for faithful Christians who attend weekly, how many remember even decent sermons a few hours afterwards? (I must admit, I don’t.) Further, without theology mavens to continually bring forward new theological ideas, our salesmen (preachers) often end up recycling content, or writing topical sermons with little theological grounding, depending more on their salesmanship than on the stickiness of the message.
  4. We’ve tried too hard to make our message sticky, and in the process made it stick even less. I’ve been seeing a culture war within the church over the past decade or more, between those who want to accommodate the message to the outside culture and those who want to control the inside culture. It seems to me that both sides of that equation are using Christian subculture as the metric, defining their message as either cultural or counter-cultural in relation to a culture that is just as far from Christian tradition as it is from mainstream secular culture. In my experience, the churches that are actually reaching out to the people around them aren’t concerned with a Christian subculture at all, whether to reinforce it or differentiate themselves from it; they’re just busy being like Jesus in the world. And that sends a message that was always, and remains, incredibly sticky.

But the thing I most want to talk about, if you can stick with me a little further, is the role of the church in forming the context or environment in which we all live.

Hacking the Context

One of the big messages of The Tipping Point is that effective social epidemics (and social change) is usually very subtle. You can’t just put up billboards or run a political campaign to change the world. The most subtle influence of all of those mentioned is context, and I think that’s where Christians can have the greatest impact – not to make a “Christian” environment or nation, but to make a better one, and in so doing to glorify God. Let’s look at the examples that Gladwell uses.

New York’s crime wave dropped off suddenly, and Gladwell attributes that to city officials putting more resources into sprucing the place up a bit and enforcing vandalism laws effectively – but it took them a decade to catch on. What if the church, seeing degrading conditions, voluntarily stepped into the breach and spruced up their neighbourhoods themselves?

In another example, Gladwell looks at the way that the spread of syphilis in Baltimore fluctuates not only based on the weather (it slows down in winter, and picks up again in summer), but also based on how well-staffed medical clinics in the area are; when medical budgets were cut and lineups at clinics increased, people who had syphilis had less access to the clinic and might be passing the disease for several additional weeks before discovering they were infected. But there was a time when churches funded needed medical services in their community – why wait for politicians to address needs?

We have given over responsibility for our context to the government, and then organize politically to try to control the government. The point of the church as an organized entity, though, is to serve the needs of others as Christ did. Jesus could have lobbied the government of his day to purge the Gerasenes of idol worship in order to improve that context, but instead he went over there and cast out demons. The majority of the Gerasenes did not benefit directly from Jesus’ visit (they were terrified and asked him to leave), but you can bet their lives improved now that a legion of demons were no longer terrorizing them in the form of a crazed man who slept among the tombs and wailed through the night. In that sense, the concrete action of Christ helped them far more than any government action there could have. Their environment was transformed in a positive way.

I recognize that not every church is in a city with a crime wave or syphilis epidemic, but I do wonder what our towns and cities would look like if churches took responsibility for their neighbourhoods and addressed those contexts without waiting for government action. Do the people who live in our neighbourhoods even know we’re there? Aside from seeing the programs advertised on our church signs, do they notice us at all? Is the neighbourhood better off for having us there? Do the neighbours benefit from our presence?

I’m not saying that every church needs to advertise their presence all over the neighbourhood – quite the opposite. Nor am I suggesting that the church should be a hub of gentrification, fixing shutters and repainting walls whether people want it or not. But I know that there are needs everywhere, and with some careful thought we can address the needs in our sphere of influence without hammering people over the head with programs and sermons, and actually improve our context with results disproportionate to our effort. But that means finding out how we fit into our context, how we affect our environment. Hard work, but worthwhile.

What do you think? How can your church serve as a tipping point to improve the context of your neighbourhood?

Theology As Discipleship: A Review

In my last post I began reviewing Keith L. Johnson’s Theology As Discipleship (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015). While initially excited about the book, my anticipation was quickly quelled by the first chapter, in which Johnson appears to contrast discipleship with critical thinking. I reserved full judgment until I had read more of the book, but now that I have I’m still not entirely sure what I think about it.

Johnson seems to spend most of his book rehearsing theology rather than working out its implications for the work of theology as a form or element of discipleship. Scripture is reprinted in full, or in very long paraphrases, and theological arguments are delivered in similarly long form. This is no doubt because he wrote the book for beginners, though he explicitly hopes that it is useful for more seasoned theologians as well. I’m not sure that I can count myself as seasoned, but I’m familiar enough with the passages and theological statements that it was either a long slog or a very light skim. That said, if I were a beginner I would appreciate his thoroughness.

Because of the first chapter’s contrast between the university and the church, I found myself looking for something to explain the apparent anti-critical stance of the first chapter, either to confirm or deny it. I found neither. Johnson is clearly not anti-intellectual – he’s arguing for the intellectual work of theology to take a central role in Christian discipleship, a project I fully and heartily agree with – and he clearly uses a hermeneutic (and apparently decent hermeneutics – he seems to interpret well). As such, I can’t say that he’s arguing for indoctrination. At the same time, his emphasis is on finding an alternative measure by which to judge theology other than critical reasoning. He uses the Augustinian approach of seeing whether an interpretation increases our love for God and neighbour as a measure of its truth, with truth defined by its correspondence to God’s eternal plan: God’s plan is for us to love God and our neighbours, so there’s some logic there, but applying critical thinking for just a moment should blow a huge hole in that argument.

Take, for example, John Piper’s view of God. By Piper’s view, everything that happens is willed by God and for the specific purpose of God’s glory. Somehow, according to Piper, the most awful things that happen in the world bring greater glory to God than even good things do – God is glorified more in, say, genocide, than in peace. Piper believes this because it’s the only thing that justifies the existence of genocide in a world that exists for God’s glory; if the world existed for any other reason, and/or if God did not have complete control over the world, then horrible things would be just horrible. Here’s the thing: Piper’s bizarre reasoning actually increases his love for God, because he can praise God for genocide. He can also be thankful for his neighbour’s cancer, which also increases the glory of God somehow. So his interpretation, according to Johnson and Augustine, is true – but so would an opposite interpretation that had similar effects. Meanwhile, critical thinking would tell us very quickly that two completely opposite interpretations, regardless of their effects, cannot simultaneously be true except in some form of paradox. Critical thinking would suggest that we should examine Piper’s premises and assumptions, and decide that perhaps it’s not true that God obsessively controls reality for the sake of his own glorification.

I can’t tell at this point (I still haven’t read the entire book, but enough to know I don’t particularly want to), but I think that Johnson is a determinist. He talks quite a bit about God’s master plan, to the point that all reality must be interpreted according to God’s master plan. This is a pretty big flaw, considering that the Church has varying views about what God’s master plan really is, aside from the redemption of humanity – and even there, Johnson pits the redemption of humanity over and against creation as the centrally defining aspect of the world. I’m not sure those things can be separated, much less contrasted. These and a few other underlying theological assumptions are evidence that his views are very theologically rooted, which is excellent – but they’re rooted in theology that I personally disagree with.

It seems, then, that Johnson is not arguing for anti-intellectualism, he’s arguing for pre-critical intellectualism. I’m not sure that he realizes that in so doing he’s arguing for a biblicist crapshoot, in which everyone feels affirmed in the eternal truth of their own uncritical interpretations of Scripture because doing so enhances their discipleship. Sometimes the best discipleship happens with the worst theology (cults enjoy great support from their followers), and Johnson seems to be suggesting that rooting theology in its function as discipleship will ensure the quality of that theology.

Ten years ago, I would have given this book an A+. It would have fit right in with my pentecostal experience-driven hermeneutic, and it serves up a lot of theology as a basis for its arguments. I’m opinionated enough about theology now to say that I think he has an excellent target, but he’s shooting in the wrong direction. There are no grades for that. I’ll keep picking away at it, but I have enough other books on my to-read list that I won’t be writing about this one again. If you know someone who thinks theology is a bad thing, I recommend it – they probably won’t be theologically picky enough to question the underlying theology here, and it will get them in the door of thinking theologically. That in itself is well worth it, and the method can be refined from there.

The University and the Church

In the first chapter of Theology As Discipleship, Keith L. Johnson notes that theology is not always welcome in the church. He shows that this is at least partially because of the changing orientation of theology, from being rooted in and focused on the church and discipleship to being housed in and based on the presuppositions of the university. The church, he suggests, is wary of theologians whose first loyalty seems to be to the secular and critical assumptions of the academy. He holds that the problem is not that theology brings together the church and the university, but that it does so in the wrong order, starting with the presuppositions of the university (e.g., objective critical reasoning) rather than those of the church (the self-revelation of God), and I expect he’ll spend the rest of the book fleshing out what that might look like.

If I understand him correctly (and I hope that I’m not), I have to disagree quite sharply. Not in his assessment that the church doesn’t welcome theology (on that point I think he understates the problem), or even in his aim of bringing the church and the university together in the discipline of theology as an act of discipleship (an excellent goal!). Rather, I think that he has made a categorical error about the nature of academic discipline and the presuppositions of the university by contrasting them with Christian discipleship and the content of God’s self-revelation.

The presuppositions of the university are not necessarily a particular method or set of practices that can be contrasted with the practices of Christian discipleship. There are certainly methods involved, such as the scientific method, but that method has been formulated as a way of getting results that are critical and can be reproduced in order to establish the truth of any conclusions a scientist might make; statistical methodology rests on the same principles, though it is quite different in practice from the scientific method. In all cases with critical methodology the goal is the removal of assumptions that might alter our perception of reality. This contrasts with Christian discipleship only if we understand discipleship to rely on assumptions. This seems to be what Johnson is saying here, and suggesting that this is a good thing.

Traditionally, Christian discipleship has involved indoctrination. While the term wasn’t always pejorative, the reason it has become so is because we no longer value assumption-laden teaching. The purpose of indoctrination was to ensure that disciples of Christ have orthodox or correct theology, and it was not considered important that they arrive at that theology through critical study. It was highly important that disciples have the right beliefs, and critical study cannot guarantee that people will come to certain beliefs, particularly if those beliefs themselves preclude critical study. Certain core doctrines, such as doctrines about the divine inspiration of Scripture, were interpreted to mean that critical study of Scripture was the opposite of faith – rather than receiving the Bible on faith as God’s good word to us, critical study involves questioning the authority of the Bible itself, something that even today fundamentalist believers refuse to do (please note that I’m not using the term “fundamentalist” pejoratively here: Christian Fundamentalists called themselves that because they believe that the divine inspiration of Scripture is a fundamental doctrine that cannot be critically questioned). Questioning the authority of Scripture has not harmed my discipleship – it has enhanced it. The Bible can stand up to criticism, but much more than that, God can stand up to criticism. We have learned to engage academic study as an act of discipleship, reading the Bible for the purpose of serving the church but doing so with critical methodology designed to reduce our own assumptions so that we can see God with less distortion.

Johnson suggests that we should begin our academic study with the presuppositions of the church rather than those of the academy. In so doing, he effectively throws out the chief presupposition of the academy, which is that we should not have other presuppositions. Instead, I suggest that we should practice the presuppositions of the academy in the church, and see the doubts and difficulties that come with critical study as an essential part of discipleship – because indoctrination makes for a weak discipleship that grows up quickly but withers because it has no roots, while rigorous and nuanced study forges our beliefs in the same way that the community and practices of Christian discipleship forge our behaviour and ethics. Perhaps when indoctrination was a primary form of teaching we were able to rely on the strength and centrality of the church community to reinforce such shallow understanding, but that is no longer the case; rather than the community defining and reinforcing knowledge, shared ideas and knowledge must now define and reinforce the church community.

But what does that look like? How can we even get theology into a church that seems to avoid it, and integrate it as a central part of Christian discipleship? These questions have been on my mind, in one way or another, since my first year of Bible college.

I grew up in the church, but I took some time away to let off steam in my youth before finding a self-focused life to be lonely, unfulfilling, and depressing. When I came back to church and found Jesus, as they say, I figured that if I was going to be a Christian for real I should probably know what I was talking about a bit better, so I went off to Bible college. I started with a one-year discipleship program, which integrates some basic academic study with worship and practical service to complete the “Head/Heart/Hands” motto of holistic discipleship. It was an incredibly powerful year for me, and I found myself repeating the thought all year, “why didn’t they teach me this in church?” It was not only the first time in my life that I had been challenged theologically, but it was also the first time that I had been taught that service to others was integral to the gospel and Christian discipleship. (My young adults group did some service stuff, but it certainly wasn’t integrated into the church as a whole.)

I’m sure that the way that theology could find a more prominent place in the church would depend a lot on the type of church. Most churches have some sort of theological initiation or catechism, but it usually stops shortly after membership – it could be extended. Some churches explain the sacraments/ordinances before performing them – this could be more widespread. Theologically void worship music could be cut: honestly, some songs just sound like a string of vaguely Christian-themed words strung together in random order, and while I’m not a hymns-only curmudgeon, we should at least look to the classics for a sense of why they’re classics and emulate their rich theological content in our new worship music.

Churches should also embrace theologians. I come from a fellowship in which theologians often either inactivate their ministerial credentials/ordination or else join the Anglican church, simply because they don’t feel particularly welcome at conferences and there is no real place for a non-pastor in the structure of the fellowship. The people who are most interested in studying Scripture and theology are leaving because they feel so isolated and excluded. Instead, why not encourage every church to have a theologian in residence? Like a “teaching pastor”, but actually embracing the word “theology” and including research specialists in the pastoral staff and life of the church. This is a critical role, not because a senior pastor or associate pastor is unable to lead Bible studies or anything like that, but because the ministerial functions of pastors often leaves them little time for keeping up with the best in theological scholarship. People are hungry for good theology, but without years of study they often find academic texts to be excessively dense and difficult, not to mention intimidating, so they look to popularizers like Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll. If you follow contemporary church superstars you know that both of those names carry enormous followings and incredible baggage that can actually be disruptive in a church, even if their work can keep people engaged in somewhat contemporary theological discussions. But while a theologian in residence could arguably do a better job of popularizing good theology for their congregation than Rob Bell can, they can also do something that Rob Bell certainly can’t, which is to raise the congregation’s level of theological discussion so that they are no longer so dependent on bestselling and polarizing popularizers. They can teach people enough basic theology and research skills to get them off of “milk” and onto “meat”, as the good book says we ought. Sermons have not proven sufficient to do so in most congregations (and a sermon/lecture is one of the worst forms of andragogy), so it’s time to shift the focus of community learning away from the centralized lecture hall and toward more engaging learning environments and practices.

In regard to learning practices, practical service is a learning practice and a worship practice. I would love, love, love to see a church that includes regular service as a whole-church activity. Many churches have a potluck meal once a month – why not have one every week, and open it up to the homeless? What about taking one week per month in which the church skips the Sunday service and spends that time on a communal project instead, or even multiple projects that the church and work on in smaller groups oriented to the skills and gifts of the people?

More than anything, I’d love to see pastors embracing theology. When I did my internship in college, the only author the senior pastor told me to read was John Maxwell; when my wife was ordained, the pre-ordination classes were all about organizational skills and how to control the church Board. A pastor from my fellowship was attending the Seminary where I was the Registrar, taking a program in Counselling, and complained that he had to take any Bible or Theology courses for an MA in Counselling – after all, he had a diploma in Bible and Theology from 1987, and had been a pastor for thirty years, so why should he have to learn anything about theology? Many pastors in my fellowship don’t even have undergraduate degrees, and many pastors who feel they need more theological education than a BA can provide simply can’t afford to go to Seminary on a church salary. Churches should be paying for their pastors to engage in ongoing theological education, so that pastors can be serving their churches from the overflow of their own learning; and denominations should be requiring ongoing education rather than just baseline educational requirements for ordination, because after all, all of the anti-intellectual pastors had theological education at one point, even if it has seemingly worn off since then.

I look forward to seeing what Keith Johnson has to say about how to integrate theology into Christian discipleship. I hope I’m reading him incorrectly to this point, but so far my initial excitement for this book has become fairly subdued. I’ll do a full review when I’ve finished.

Is it just me, or are these guys whistling?

Beyond Just War and Pacifism

In what is so far the most challenging chapter (at least for me) in Christian Political Witness, Peter J. Leithart begins his essay “Violence” with a rather controversial claim: “From beginning to end, the Bible is utterly opposed to violence.” Violence, he says, is the only thing that “God hates down to his ‘soul’” (147). He then goes on to reference just a smattering of the many times that God directly commands Israel to wipe out entire races of people or vows to utterly destroy entire nations. Where’s the disconnect?

Leithart suggests that the Bible has a different definition of violence than we would normally use. While we would normally define violence as any use of force that inflicts harm on another, Leithart catalogues the many uses of the word hamas (Hebrew for “violence”) in the Old Testament and notes that it primarily refers to sinful uses of force, while just uses of force – even those that inflict harm – are not referred to as hamas. God hates hamas so much that he goes to war and wipes out entire people groups to eradicate it. Hamas includes false witness, exploitation of the poor/widow/orphan/stranger, fraud, and corruption. On the other hand, the intensely fiery words of the prophets are not hamas, nor are physical discipline or punishments (including capital punishment). So while our standard definition of violence refers to the use of force resulting in harm, it appears that the OT definition is the use of force (physical or verbal) from sinful motives. Or as Leithart put it, “As a shorthand answer, I would say that violence is unjust and sinful use of force.” Which raises the question: “what counts as a sinful use of force?” (155).

Leithart refers us to the theological just war tradition for guidance, and it certainly appears that God’s actions against sin and injustice support just war. “Yahweh’s war against violence is the paradigm for human judgment. Rulers are to be deacons of God’s avenging wrath…punishment is not counterviolence that keeps violence within bounds but an act of purgation…force can be used not to oppress but to deliver the oppressed” (154). I have a hard time disagreeing with his reading, and up to this point in my life I’ve placed those violent texts from the OT in my “I don’t know what to do with this, but I don’t like it” category and hoped for something that can help me to connect those passages with the teachings and actions of Christ that have led me toward pacifism. Because of this, I only reluctantly admit that just war is probably the best way to interpret God’s stance on violence (or physical force) in Scripture. But that still leaves the question of whether just use of force is actually possible for us today, or a good option even if possible. How does the Church fit into all of this, and how do members of the Church balance this with being members of a society in which this occurs?

Leithart notes how a dominant view of power in the past few centuries, and most recently exemplified by Slavoj Zizek, is the “valorization of violence” which, in the words of Hannah Arendt (from her 1970 book On Violence), is the idea that “violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power” (157). Arendt takes Max Weber’s definition of power as the legitimate right to violence and turns it on its head, instead defining power as “the human ability ‘to act in concert’…empowered by a group to act on behalf of the group” (158). As such, a government or ruler resorts to violence due to a lack of actual power, while the use of violence erodes power, so that violence and power are actually mutually exclusive. (Note: Arendt’s definition of power corresponds to Weber’s definition of authority, which he contrast with power and violence, so that they end up saying much the same thing!) The problem with both Weber and Arendt is that they define a polity by who has power or uses violence, which means that the Church is not recognized as a polity. It is a polity, but it doesn’t use violence. It also doesn’t have much in the way of power, at least in our society: power as Arendt defines it (and authority as Weber defines it) depends on the empowerment or assent of others. The Church places authority in Scripture, but as Leithart points out, Habakkuk complains that Torah cannot restrain violence. “If the Torah cannot restrain violence, neither can the US Constitution, the criminal code of Illinois, or the Geneva Accords” (159). So while the Church does not resort to violence, in either the OT definition or our common definition today, even “legitimate” uses of force (in the just war sense) or uses of force that the OT wouldn’t consider to be hamas are incapable of fulfilling God’s war against violence.

So we see that God’s definition of violence is limited to the unjust use of force, that God readily employs just use of force to purge violence, and that God’s use of just force is a model for our own use of force. But we also see that our own use of force is incapable of finishing the job, and vulnerable to corruption:

As institutions of the saeculum, governments use force to curb worse violences, but all too often they become agents of violence themselves. Even at their best they do not have the kind of tools needed to carry on Yahweh’s war on violence. Law enforcement is a good, and Christians may legitimately do this good work. But it does not swallow violence in victory.
Only Jesus does that. (159)

This is the point at which I expect to see Leithart turn to pacifism and nonviolent direct action, and start talking about the church subverting violence with love. Not quite. While acknowledging that Jesus and his church do not engage in violence, Leithart also does not see Jesus as nonviolent: “Scripture is a manifesto neither for pacifism nor for law-and-order conservatism” (159), and “The church is not violent in either the biblical sense or in our usual sense of the word. She does not employ the normal form of political force, but negative ‘nonviolence’ is not her essence. Jesus’ city is something far stranger” (160).

“…‘nonviolence’ is not her essence.” This is hard to swallow, because I see Jesus as being nonviolent. But Leithart has already shown that God is ready and willing to kill in order to fight violence in the biblical sense, and has even pointed out with Paul that “God’s treatment of sin in the Old Testament was mild, almost jocular” (149) compared to the coming judgment. There is continuity between God’s war on violence and Jesus’ nonviolence: “God purges violence in the flood, clears out the violence of Pharaoh, destroys the Babylonian destroyers. It is Jesus who launches his decisive campaign against violence” (159). Jesus does so by absorbing violence in his own body, the Suffering Servant pierced both by and for our transgressions who swallows death and overcomes it. Jesus’ nonviolence is not a sharp contrast with God’s war on violence, but its fulfillment. As his followers, we are not nonviolent in the sense that we are not to show pity as we flay the unjust with our prophetic critique, nor are we necessarily to abhor war or punishment as inherently violent in the OT sense, nor are we to be strangers to violence. Instead, we are called to go beyond avoiding and decrying violence, and instead to act as a human shield for those who are victims of violence.

I think that Leithart has a limited notion of nonviolence when he says that the church is not essentially nonviolent. While I see his point about the biblical definition of violence, and can concede that just use of force is not inherently wrong and may even be very godly and good, I still see the example of Christ (to nonviolently absorb violence in himself) as better. Many/most nonviolent theorists would also include absorbing violence in our own flesh in imitation of Christ as essential to nonviolence, a point that Leithart’s chapter misses. But even so, without naming it he touches on something that I think is key to the just war/pacifism debate, and which may even lead to a synthesis: the gratuity of God’s grace in Christ.

While it may be good and just to use force to punish and purge violence from the world, God in Christ gives grace and forgiveness and in so doing makes peace. While it may be good and just to avoid the use of force altogether, love of neighbour compels us to protect the weak and purge violence from the earth to bring about peace. Neither just war nor pacifism in itself is wrong – both are very good! – and neither view should look down on the other (and those who hold either view should hold the other to account for any corruption or failure in practice), but what is better is the gratuity of grace and love that leads us, like Christ, to absorb violence into our own bodies for the sake of the other, even our enemies, even the enemies of God, and in so doing bring about peace.

I propose, then, a new branch of peace/just war studies that explores in practical terms just how one might sacrifice oneself for another nonviolently yet to great effect. Because I know that the first thing that people will say about the notion of self-sacrifice as the ultimate expression of both pacifism and just war is “well, it sounds good in theory, but…” A good start is made by the next chapter, “Just War as Christian Politics” by Daniel M. Bell, Jr., wherein he distinguishes between Just War as a Public Policy Checklist (i.e., Just War as it’s actually practised) and Just War as Christian Discipleship, working through the traditional criteria of just war from both perspectives to contrast them and highlight how Christian discipleship forms people capable of actually abiding by the just war criteria reflexively and generously. It’s a good start, but I’d like to see it go further.

 

Corporations Are People Too

Since 2010, I’ve been one of the many people frustrated by the idea, protected by law in the USA, that a corporation is a person. The Citizens United decision of the US Supreme Court in 2010 not only reinforced that corporations are people, but also that they are people with free speech. Since the US Supreme Court sees spending money as a form of speech, corporations are thus free to spend as much money as they like on elections. That this is an incredible distortion of democracy is obvious, but that’s only one reason why so many of us are frustrated by it. The book and documentary film The Corporation asks the question “If a corporation is a person, what kind of a person is it?” and ultimately concludes that a business corporation is a sociopath. Considering that our greatest societal protections are offered to persons, and corporations are potentially dangerous sociopaths who lack the features of persons we would normally protect (e.g., humanness, biological life, etc.), it seems that applying the term “person” to them is a categorical misstep: they get many of the benefits of society with none of the responsibilities, with “corporate responsibility” often serving as little more than a marketing ploy. As such I’ve long been of the opinion that “person” is entirely too good of a title for a corporation, giving them too much power and distorting the relationship between personhood and humanity.

But personhood is not necessarily identical to humanity, though it has long been held by many to be the same thing. The abortion debate centres around the definition of personhood, with the prevailing view being that a fetus, in spite of being human, is not a person until it is physically born. Given the huge variation in the time that a baby can be safely born, the actual moment of birth seems a harshly arbitrary distinction on which to hang the right to life, and our stinginess with the title of “person” in this respect makes the notion of a business corporation as a person rankle even more.

Animals are people too. At least, that’s what I always used to tell my parents when they barred my pets from, say, eating at the dinner table with us or sleeping on my bed. But there is a growing movement to recognize specific animals (e.g., dolphins, whales), and even the natural systems of the planet as a whole, as people. Recognizing the environment as a whole as a morally significant stakeholder is recognizing a form of corporate personhood.

For all of these reasons I’ve been mistaken about railing against corporate personhood in general, but I didn’t recognize it until I read William Cavanaugh’s “Are Corporations People?” in Christian Political Witness. Cavanaugh makes the point that “corporate personhood is central to Christianity” (129), and that the alternative view to corporate personhood is individualism and the competition of the market in both the business and political spheres. He traces the view of corporate personhood from Genesis (Adam is often translated as “humankind”, and God interacts with humans in a corporate fashion throughout the Bible), to the corporate personhood of the Church in the New Testament and Church Fathers, to the corporate personhood of the nation state (which still appears in the form of nationalism), through to the rise of market economies which had the effect of “liberalizing” us from corporate personhood to become individuals who “deal with each other on the basis of contract…rather than as members of a social body” (138). He points out that there is no essential relationship between democracy and free markets: they’re both encouraged by liberalism, but markets do not require democracy to function, with the implication that a market-dominated society is not necessarily free and certainly not necessarily equal. So the absence of corporate personhood in our system actually removes our sense of belonging to a common body, and individualism feeds the competitive market-based systems that exacerbate inequality in society. “If we do not see each other as members or potential members of the same body, we cannot begin to see the political process as a healing process for the weakest of our members” (144). So the problem, then, is not that we might see corporations as people (i.e., moral actors with the ability to speak), but rather that the Citizens United decision privileges business corporations over others (such as the Church, unions, clubs and societies, etc).

What Cavanaugh didn’t touch on at all is the spiritual aspect of corporate people. This is the biggest reason I’m surprised I didn’t catch on to the importance of seeing corporations as people: I’ve been talking about it in other contexts for years! The New Testament notion of Powers and Principalities states that corporations such as churches, governments, and even business corporations, have a spiritual or inner aspect as well as an outward or physical aspect. By attributing a spiritual aspect to a corporate body we affirm it as a spiritual being – a status that many of us probably wouldn’t assign to individual animals even if we were willing to grant them another level of personhood. If corporate bodies are spiritual beings, how can they not be people?

The Church is a corporate person: together, Christians form the body of Christ. We believe that we actually embody Christ in the world, and that we do so more completely and powerfully in a corporate sense than we ever could individually. Cavanaugh refers to patristic thought and quotes Zizioulas to make the point that Christian identity and personhood is actually dependent upon our oneness in Christ, so that “the Eucharist ‘is the reality which makes it possible for us to exist at all’” (134, emphasis original). For Christians, corporate personhood and identity is primary; individual personhood and identity is secondary (at least, ideally). This sets the terms by which the Church interacts with the rest of society (i.e., our politics): “The church’s goal in society is to speak as a corporate person on behalf of the poor, to promote organizations of true social solidarity and also to encourage businesses to pursue legitimate profit within the telos of an economy of love” (145). The Church is to represent a different type of corporation in the world that models legitimate and healthy corporate personhood (as opposed to the sociopathic nature of the modern business corporation) and in so doing to include those excluded by other corporate persons and provide limits on, or redirect, the ambitions and power of other corporate persons.