Tag Archives: Augustine

Ranking, Theological Studies, and Racial Hierarchy: Some A-Musings #SBLAAR

Recently, I keep thinking whether to be saddened or happy that I did not have the means to go to the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature. Why would I enter a space where my body because of the color of my skin is not welcome?

Let me start here. I have to wonder how can Christianity stand as it is here in the United States when its leading magazine, Christianity Today, saves a space for Neo-Confederate racists like Doug Wilson. Do we really believe that outsiders will take your community seriously in a culturally pluralistic society like ours? Let’s ask Mitt Romney for his thoughts! I think the problem is much more deeper than simply permitting a racist to write for your top magazine in the name of “tolerance.” The problem of race and theology is the one of the closed theological canon, and here, no I am not talking about the Bible, (but of course, we always can if you want!).

What I am referring to is the ever perpetual push by privileged white Protestant men to always want to go back to Saint Augustine without addressing any of the problems surrounding his bad interpretation of Scripture (Judges and Romans in particular) and his anti-Jewish statements (ironically, but always condemning Martin Luther for his!). I think this uncritical reclamation project is part of an on-going and unnecessary cycle in Christianity called Euro-centrism. One of the plethora of examples comes from seemingly innocent suggestions like from Stephen C Barton, Complementarianism and Darwinism at The Jesus Creed who “contends we need to read the Bible with Augustine and Barth, that is, both christologically and eschatologically.” Of course, Barton is in pronouncing nothing new, it’s the run of the mill post-liberal, radically orthodox argument. However, just exactly, who’s Augustine will we be reading with? Who’s Barth will we be reading with? These men are not alive to dialogue with us about their great writings, they have interpreters, and it is their circle of interpreters that has remained closed, and thus the canon. In fact, one must ask does the work of one James Hal Cone and his interpretation of Karl Barth (see Black Theology and Black Power), will his interpretation of Barth be included?

Also, if I exclude any argument from marginality in terms of race here, why do Barth and Augustine have to be the ones we return to (aside from Jesus Christ) when it comes to theology? Why not Clement of Alexandria? Irenaeus of Lyons? Do not Augustine & Barth lend themselves to particular theological biases? Call me crazy, but in the end, the RadOx and postliberalism movements are just lending themselves to being just another (maybe a more mainline, moderate?) wing of the Neo-Calvinist movement, where Calvin and Augustine, and then occasionally Barth are at the top theologically; that is, their interpretation of Scripture is viewed as also necessary for every Christian. Closed canons. Closed to bodies of color. Closed to women.

Indeed how we rank theology programs and theologians do more to tell us what bodies you value more than tell us the worth of any institution. Take R.R. Reno’s ranking of the top theological institutions: it is conceded that Duke Divinity School has the best of what the mainline has to offer, with “postliberal conviction.” Reno seems to betray his criteria, Duke is mainline but it is also orthodox, which is quite confusing for me, because isn’t evangelicalism supposed to be the space of orthodoxy? When it comes to prioritizing the hierarchy of theologians (re: bodies), and the closed space of the theological canon, what matters is not so called “doctrinal orthodoxy” but that space which is closest to what you want to deem ideal culturally. In short, making the white ambiguous, hegemonic CHURCH the answer to the world’s problems (postliberal Christianity) has more similarities to conservative evangelical’s dominionism, the idea of a “Christian” domination system.

It’s rather curious that a site/publication dedicated to just war theory and conservativism would praise Hauerwas and Hays, two outspoken pacifists, but it’s not about doctrine. Like the postliberalism that is now the supposed new orthodoxy, it’s about shared culture and linguistics, a reactionary social apologetic in the name of “tradition”. Yes, I have read George Lindbeck’s The Nature Of Doctrine, but have you read any criticism of his work? Cultural hegemony is prized over and against teaching (truth as propositional): the reign of cultural orthodoxy! And a return to Augustine (read:traditional white interpretations of Augustine of Hippo) and Karl Barth (read: traditional and newer white appropriations of Karl Barth’s Theology of the Word). While postliberalism claimed to call itself a different creature than either liberal or conservative, I think things like John Milbank’s email declaring Radical Orthodoxy to be the New Face of Historic Orthodoxy or Theology Studio’s uncritical assessment of Reno’s list put U.S. postliberalism/U.K. radical orthodoxy squarely on the right IMNSHO. Nothing wrong with being conservative, but being dishonest about your political and theological biases are!

Oh to not have to talk about race! Maybe if I bleach my skin and start talking about how THE CHURCH is the end all, be all of everything, then people will start listening to me more? Am I right?

Christmas & Cosmic Liberation: Mary as Noah 2.0

An Experiment in Allegorical Interpretation

Right around Christmas time, we Protestant Christians like to rush right through the Incarnation, spit on the idea that YHWH arrived here on Earth as a baby, and start talking about Easter. It happens in Protestant pulpits, and you know it! One of the common talking points in all of the Crucifixion talk is the idea that Mary, the mother of Jesus, as Eve 2.0. Now, for people who continue to affirm Original Sin as something that is biologically inherited, this allegorical interpretation of the text fits quite nicely. For others, such as myself, who do not affirm Original Sin as something transmitted through our bodies, this view remains a problem in that women remain the scapegoat for human wickedness on a large scale.

The thing about allegorical interpretation is that it is not absolute, and there can be other paradigms used within reason (I would say measured by the Canon and Tradition). In some forms of Judaism, there are four types of interpretation, and one of the being REMEZ, that uses “patterns and models [that] allude to all experiences […] of the past, and intimate the gamut of possibilities of the future.” (Mihaly, Eugene. The Passover Haggadah as PaRaDiSe. page 18). Many historians have noted that in the Medieval Ages, Scripture (alluding to the image of Ezekiel’s Chariot) was seen as having four senses of interpretation. Among these are the literal sense, the moral sense, the anagogical sense (the hope for the future), and the allegorical sense. I believe that this was the Scriptural project taken up by Gregory the Great (I am going by memory here). Now, there is no mistaken that there are some forms of allegorical interpretation that are harmful (one can look no further than Augustine’s terrible readings of Judges 6 and Romans 8-9). Augustine’s allegorical reading of Judges 6 is an example of why it is important to take the original context of Scripture seriously; interpretation is no light task. The only way that Judges 6 could be used as an anti-Judaic text is if the interpreter himself has a vendetta against Judaism (I.e., Augustine).

Being a fanboy of the Alexandrian school of theology (including it’s High Christology, Mariology, and preference for allegorical interpretation ) in Early Christian history, I am also well aware of some of it’s blind spots. I see no reason why conservative Christians like Joel want to have “Mary as Eve 2.0” be the final interpretation for Mary as Theoktos. No one argues that Joseph is Adam 2.0, I mean, why not? Adam was married to Eve, makes logical sense, yes? There is no allusion of a garden in the Nativity story, no forbidden fruits or trees.

Mary as Noah 2.0

I would suggest that, through the use of the Synoptic Gospels (specifically Luke & Mark), the stories of Mary & Joseph, as well as Elizabeth & Zechariah could be read allegorically as a Noah story 2.0. That is, to clarify, that Mary and Elizabeth inhabit the Noahide prophetic tradition. An typological understanding of Revelation 11:19-12:17, primarily Catholic in origin, understands Mary as the Ark of the Covenant. Like Hannah in 1st Samuel 1 & 2, Mary is living in the midst of religious and political crisis. Just as the story of the prophet Samuel involves the movement of the Ark of the Covenant, so does Mary’s story. Noah’s Ark is an Ark of Covenant (Genesis 6:18), that God covenants with Noah before and after (Genesis 8:20-22). At this point of the narrative, it is obvious that the author of Genesis 6-8 is very familiar with the sacrificial system put in place during the days of Moses (thus the allusion to clean and unclean animals).

Typologically speaking, I would like to suggest that Jesus is the Ark of the Covenant (since Peter does recognize the Ark as an early vision of baptism–1st Peter 3:18-22). Just as the oppressive Philistines forced the Ark of the Covenant into Exile, so does the Roman government in Mary’s day force Joseph and Mary into Exile in Egypt. Noahide imagery appears in Mark’s introduction of John the Immerser and Jesus. Jesus is left in the wilderness with animals (Mark 1:13), while John is clothed with animal skins (Mark 1:6). The Immersion into water of Jesus by John the Immerser is an inversing of the flood; water and animals are being used to save human beings rather than displaying YHWH’s wrath towards their sinfulness. The image of the dove (the idea that the Holy Spirit anoints Christ) has some covenantal significance, for in Genesis 8, Noah sends out a dove to see whether what God has spoken is true (the flood ending after 40 days or so); in Luke, Mary and Joseph are so poor they can only offer a dove or pigeon according to the Law of the Covenant (Leviticus 5 & 12, Luke 2:24).

If this be this case, then I submit that the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth fit the role of Noah/Hannah, as prophets of righteousness (2nd Peter 2:5), who remind us of God’s magnificence and our limitations in our creatureliness (see the Magnificats: 1st Samuel 2:1-10/Luke 1:46-56).

“The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.”– 1st Samuel 2:7-9, NRSV

Let Heav’n and Nature Sing!

Thomas Jay Oord's The Nature of Love: A Theology

Disclaimer: This is a review of Thomas Jay Oord’s The Nature of Love: A Theology. Full disclosure– I personally know and have met Professor Oord on a couple of occassions at the annual Wesleyan Theological Society. Also, as a part of a mutual agreement via Facebook whereby I received this work at no cost, I am reviewing this book as a Christian Open/Relational Theist. Hence, my review reflects my theological preference as such.

Part 1: Oord Addresses A Major Blindspot in Theoloogy:

Love is viewed as an afterthought for systematic theologians, Oord argues (page 1). Usually when professional theologians discuss love, its about issues relating to marriage and sexuality. Oord believes that love is THE central message of the Bible and his goal is to portray God as lovingly relational (i.e., not impersonal) against thinkers like Paul Tillich, as well as the necessity of love (contra Karl Barth) (pages 6-7). Oord defines love as “To act intentionally in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others to promote overall well being” (17). I especially appreciated the potential of “promoting overall well being” as well as Oord explanation of that portion as linking love to justice. “Justice and love are not enemies” (20). Part of being loving is working for the common good–a notion that could potentially be compatible with liberation theologies, especially ones that begin with reflectons on love (see Gustavo Gutierrez’ A Theology of Liberation). The empathy/sympathy portion of the definition means that in a loving relationship, the relational bond partly determines the existence of each party (22). Oord finishes his introductory chapter arguing that God calls all complex creatures to love according to the light given to them, and that God’s love is solely not self-sacrifice, ala feminist theology (26-28).

Part 2: Oord Problematizes Past Theologies of Love

Oord goes on to criticize Anders Nygren’s theology of love, for stressing agape love, one that makes human beings passive recipients of God’s love in Christ. Nygren avoids the Hebrew Bible in his arguments, and prefers the language of master and slave. Oord finds Saint Augustines view of love as primarily acquisitive desire, enjoyment for short. Oord says, “God is not entirely egoistic” (81). Lastly, Clark Pinnock, while Oord uses the Open Theology framework that Pinnock and others proposed a few decades ago, Oord says that any idea that we have to believe in Creation Ex Nihilo, that God created everything starting from nothing. Not only is this an unbiblical idea according to Oord, it is advancing a god who coerces contrary to the nature of love.

Part 3: Oord Makes A New Proposal for a Theology of Love

Oord argues that God must be Essentially Kenotic, that is necessarily self-limiting. This commitment is involuntary (125-127) since a voluntary kenotic God can still be blamed for the existence and prevalence of evil in the word (124). Oord proposes a new Open doctrine of love for Creation: creation ex creatione a natura, something he states is better than creation ex nihilo or creation ex deo. An essentially kenotic God is not “weak, uninvolved, or inactive” but at the same time, there is no guarantee of victory since there is no possibility of coercion (156). He concludes the text, “I think good theology must be be lived. Just as practice informs theology, good theology must be live in practice.”

Part 4: My Criticism from a Liberationist & Postcolonial Perspective

Oord states that his constructive proposal for a Creation Ex Creatione a Natura has “nothing about the view logically problematic.” For starters, while I enjoy works in constructive theology, there is such thing as having a text filled with too many neologisms. In my view, in light of the purpose of the text, which was to construct a theology centered on love, Oord hides behind obfuscation, creating a neogolistic word cloud, concealing clarity of thought. I think it was over the top, for example, when Oord randomly renames his brand of panentheism, “theocosmocentrism”(147). It was really quite unnecessary and there is not really an explanation for the preference, or any background. Oord’s Creation Ex Creatione a Natura reads more like Creation Continua, a combination of process thought in biblicist garb. There is a problem with the logic of Creation Continua, that it promotes politically essentialism and permanence. As Willie Jennings in The Christian Social Imagination noted, Creation Ex Nihilo affirms the fundamental instability of all things. “When view through this hermeneutical horizon, peoples exist without necessary permanence either of place or identity. This kind of anti-essentialist vision facilitates a different way of viewing human communities” (28).

My second problem with Oord is his excessive biblicism; the text itself is a rather odd blend of philosophical theology and citation of scripture with very little background or exegesis given (a lot like one of my favorite theologians, Jurgen Moltmann). Oord believes that the Bible’s metanarrative is centered on love, and that it is the Bible that is “the supreme love witness” (119). Does this not make the Scriptures more of a revelation of the divine over Jesus? Christ, creation, and the church are all put on equal pairing in terms of ethics, but the Bible is at the top of the hierarchy according to Oord’s logic. If you are going to do a book on philosophical theology, stay with philosophical theology. I guess I could say the same of most evangelical theology, which, outside of those like Stanley Grenz, theology becomes nothing more than the Bible Wars being played out all over again.

Lastly, I felt the tone of the book made it read like Oord did not want to disagree with anyone, and therefore caught in a controversy of some sort. It is an utter contradiction to argue on one page that God’s kenosis (self-emptying) is involuntary, and then a couple of pages later, claim that God is self-limiting. This is theological-double speak. You are either advancing process theology or you are not. Don’t try to appeal to divine voluntarism, but then criticize God following through on God’s promises as assurance God will be loving (page 145). Oord would neatly fit the description of a process theist (but alas, what person fits neatly into any category?) if it was not for his (correct) orthodox view of God as personal. This is where Oord could have aided his own argument, using Christian tradition to support his views. Yet, Tradition is the part of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that Oord neglects (he gives us a healthy dose of Christian Experience, the Bible, and Christian Reason).

I hope my criticisms are helpful in Oord’s future texts, and that Oord’s view of relational theology reaches a wider audience and changes theological determinist hearts in U.S. American Evangelicalism.