Tag Archives: Brian McLaren

Is existentialism solely the burden of the modern white man?

Guest post by harry samuels

Peter Rollins in Belfast, 2007

Peter Rollins in Belfast, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I was reading further and further into Dr. Kimberly K Smith’s African American Environmental Thought, I cam across the section of the first chapter whose heading read “Slave Cosmology” which discussed a number of points related to this topic and , as one might predict, included their brand of Christianity. Observe the following:

“ [Lawrence Levine] contends that slave religion reflects a fundamentally African consciousness. He points to evidence that slaves retained many of their animistic beliefs, synchronizing them with the folk beliefs of white Americans. The persistence of African beliefs made slaves’ version of Christianity distinctive. Slave religion, according to Levine, does not differentiate material and spiritual reality as sharply as does the Christianity of white Americans. Rather, like West African animistic beliefs, slave religion conceptualizes the spiritual and material world as intertwined. Spirits inhabit this world alongside men and animals, rather than transcending it. Eugene Genovese, elaborating on this point, argues that ‘African ideas place man himself and therefore his Soul within nature, ‘ and that Christian slaves similarly rejected ‘other-worldly’ understandings of the soul and Heaven. For example, he contends that references to Heaven in slave spirituals should be interpreted as referring to both a spiritual condition and a physical place (such as the North) where slaves would enjoy freedom.”

Now, if you ask me, this sounds awfully similar , in some ways, to what our Emergent friends like Brian McClaren and Rob Bell are trying to drive American Christians to – embracing the the wonder/the Divine intrinsic to life and what’s around us and making Christianity less about some Pie In The Sky faith about getting into a far-off celestial city. But how many Christians ( or Americans period) know this about Christian slave beliefs!? Oh and let’s not forget about Peter Rollins – the existential theologian with a penchant for intellectual snobbery. Based on his last little snafu with a female theologian blogger and the general trend for white Emergent church leaders’ disdain for any practice of Christianity they deem to be too “primitive” or lacking their own standard of “intellectual rigor”, Peter Rollins, nor any other of the Emergent church “fathers” would even BEGIN to look , let alone take seriously the theology of Christian slaves. Now before you say that I’m just ranting just to rant, re-read the quote above, and then read the following quote from one of Peter Rollins’s blog posts on www.peterrrollins.net ,

“In contrast to this the work of theologian Paul Tillich reveals a different approach. For rather than seeing the sacred as some distinct thing (even the greatest thing), one can see it as the name we give to the affirmation of a depth dimension that can be found in all things.

In this way one does not attempt to place the sacred alongside reason, ethics or aesthetics, but rather sees the sacred affirmed in our heartfelt commitment to these. From this perspective, insofar as we affirm the world as wonderful, we express the sacred. It is as we show loving care and concern for existence, and as we participate fully in life, we proclaim the sacred even if we are not aware of it. This is somewhat similar to the way that everything we see proclaims the existence of light even though we likely have no direct cognizance of the light (for we are focused on what the light illuminates).”

Read the full post here

Or look, even THIS post – about modern notions of the divine and demonic being separate from reality

Sure, it was Christianity fused with animism, but the result was a form of Christianity that was as tangible to them as God became through Incarnation. My point in all of this is the fact that in all of an existentialist’s thoughts and scenarios and constructs, could it not all be alleviated by simply LISTENING to people whose experiences are radically different from your own? If we think about how some existentialists arose in response to the horrors of World War II , we might note their anguish and complete loss of hope in everything- when really that everything what just modernity. Wasn’t math, science, and reason ( enlightenment values) suppose to solve all our woes? Wasn’t it about progressing humanity- as time moved on and we amassed more reason and knowledge, wasn’t mankind supposed to get smarter/ more reasonable? The glaring fact of the matter was that World War II ( or war as a human practice in general) was seen as very unreasonable. There could be no rationalization for the horrors wrought by (from help and math and science, mind you)such things as the Holocaust and/or bombings.

The brand of existentialism then ( and the brand that Rollins and friends stick most closely to) that arose in response to this, grew out of cynicism , skepticism, if not utter disdain for enlightenment values of modernity. To them, we had seen it all, we had made as much progress as we could have made and figured it all out, so for this to be the result, must mean that reason and certainty are tenuous and there really can be no certainty. These thoughts they processed without considering the experiences of the people marginalized by the malaise of modernity- the Jews, the African slaves, the Native Americans,etc. I can not help but feel that some existential crises could be abated by simply listening to more voices than those you’ve been exposed to all your life. For these reasons, I am beginning to believe that perhaps existentialism is primarily the burden of the modern white man.

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Did Abel Deserve To Die?: Mosala's Postcolonial Reading of Genesis 4:1-16

15th century depiction of Cain and Abel, Specu...

Image via Wikipedia

As far as I can remember, my mother was the first one to teach my brother and I about the Cain and Abel story. She inferred in her reading (which was the traditional understanding) that Abel gave the better sacrifice, the very best lamb he had. The question is, for me, where is this in the text? No where in Scripture does it say, in Genesis 4 that Cain gave the worst of his crop (as the children’s bible illustrations tried to teach me). This story always eluded me. For post-modern readers, like Brian McLaren and Marjorie Suchocki, they offer Abel and Cain as part of the meta-narrative of the Fall to violence, that Abel was one of the world’s first scapegoats (after his mother Eve of course), and Cain leads the world into death, rage, and eventually Nimrod’s empire.

At first, this would seem to be an appropriate reception of Genesis 4, but it still does not bother to ask, why is Abel favored over Cain? Then last week in my reading, I came across Itumeleng Mosala in his Biblical Hermeneutics And Black Theology In South Africa and his materialist critique of liberation theology. For Mosala, the notion of the Bible as “the Word of God,” something that is free of ideology with one clear message, is a bourgeois bias (page 26). The Bible as “the Word of God” conceals, according to Mosala, the fact that the text is a product of “complex and problematical histories and societies” (20). I believe this scathing critique, while aimed at James Cone, can rightfully be applied to the subject of Cone’s dissertation topic, Karl Barth as well.

Mosala takes Desmund Tutu and Allan Boesak to task for their liberationist hermeneutical leaps, and existential uses of Scripture without acknowledging Scripture’s oppressive passages. For Mosala, the problem with Boesak’s reading of the Bible as an ideological text starts with Boesak’s defense of the decision by God to leave Cain a landless nomad (a refugee if you will). However, Mosala notes, that nearly all scholars agree that Genesis 4:1-16 was written around 10th century BCE. It is not a matter simply of Cain killing his brother, he is punished, end of story. The gaps in the story tell us something about the ideology behind the author’s intentions. For one thing, Abel is a shepherd, and shepherds in the ancient near east were titles given to the kings along with the ruling class (priests, nobility).  The 10th century BCE was also the time when the ruling classes during the Davidic monarchy expropriated land from the masses, leaving their fellow Judeans homeless. In this instance, Boesak’s (and I would include McLaren’s and Suchocki’s) reading of Genesis 4:1-16 is a collusion with the oppressors (33). Therefore, it could be said that Cain and Abel is a story to justify the Yahwist author’s defense of the people becoming landless– since of course, only the royalty and the elite are pleasing before the LORD (34). Scriptural evidence for this taking of land includes II Kings 21 and II Chronicles 26. The royal scribes producing the history of David’s triumph worked to apologize for the economic changes taking place, from the more egalitarian pre-monarchal tribal setting during the time of judges, to a socio-economic structure where the king is in charge of a tribute system that exploits the poor; remember, YHWH did warn the Israelites that this would happen (1st Samuel 8). Large, privately owned estates, latifundias as they were called, began to appear as the peasant class lost their power. In reading Ezekiel’s eschatology, (chapters 40-48), I am now beginning to wonder if Ezekiel, while part of the priestly class himself, he does call for the egalitarian distribution of land among the people (Ezekiel 48: 1-29). Just something to think about.

Speaking of priesthood, Mosala also takes Tutu for task for using “the one royal priesthood” as a metaphor in his Hope and Suffering, since a royal priesthood is a code-word for ideological landed nobility (39).  This reminds me of theologians such as Hauerwas and company who rely on similar language, with all the talk of virtue ethics and community, that maybe some theological projects are inherently going to favor the gentry.  It also makes me want to reconsider readings of 1st Peter 2:9; perhaps it would be more emancipatory to read 1st Peter 1 & 2 together, that the notion of diaspora (1st Peter 1:1), homelessness, is connected to discipleship, for the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58 NRSV).  This may even cause us to re-think Jesus as our High Priest-King, once we filter through the historical definitions of what it meant to be a royal scribe.

As for Mosala’s reading of black liberation theology and Genesis 4:1-16, there are a few issues that I need to air out. First, while I side with Mosala, that there is no meta-narrative in scripture, and that the idea that there is a meta-narrative in the Bible is ultimately a middle-class bias that supports the ruling class within the church. However, Mosala is driven by his own Marxist & materialist meta-narrative that does not see its own blind spots. Contemporary theology views Jesus as the primary Word of God, and Scripture secondary, and that the Bible can only be considered the Word of God as far as it refers to the mission of Christ. Secondly, materialism comes from a form of naturalism that ignored the immanently transcendent presence of the Living God in creation.  It is the unquestioned pre-supposition of God’s existence (for better or worse) that differentiates modern black theological projects from others, i.e., there is little engagement with non-theistic thinkers (in my view).  Thirdly, what we know about the history of the ancient Near East is very limited, and while it is helpful, it is not a foundation that laypersons can rely on.  In other words, it is a view mostly accessible to the academy.  Now granted, there are many laypersons who are interested in historical criticism.  It is just very difficult to make it plain.

So, I ask, did Abel deserve to die?  Is Cain the victim after all?

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Brian Mclaren on Predestination/Sola Scriptura

Check out Brian McLaren’s comments to an email question he received about two perennial theological issues. I find that he put my thoughts into words better than I could have at the moment.

McLaren on Sola Scriptura and Predestination

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