Tag Archives: radical subjectivity

Over at Ecclesio: Preaching to Transgress

Today, I had the distinct pleasure of having my #AnaBlacktivist presence welcomed over at Ecclesio.Com, a website for Presbyterian (USA) clergy. Many thanks to fellow KillJoy Prophet Mihee Kim Kort for this opportunity. Here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

“I learned to dance with the Triune God  along the margins of society.  Whereas before, my freedom was restricted but once I encountered the plight of the oppressed and the Word within me was unleashed, I began my journey as transgressive preacher.”

To read the rest, go to Ecclesio: Preaching To Transgress: Christian Education And Difference

Beyond Belief: Postmodernity & Religion

As I have read more writing on postmodernism I have begun to question many of the assumptions that I have learned throughout my education career. Recently, I have begun to question my own belief about the study of religion. Specifically, through reading Anderson’s piece on postmodernism and religion I question my previous notions of what categorizes religion. I attended TCU as an undergraduate and religion was one of my majors. I chose religion as my major because I wanted to have an objective understanding of religion before deciding how committed I wanted to be in making ministry part of my career. My undergraduate career culminated with a senior seminar course in religion. Throughout this course we discussed various definitions of religion from Thomas Tweed, Fredrich Schleiermacher, Diane Eck, Anthony Pinn, and a variety of others who articulated various definitions of religion. I noticed at that time that many of those scholars were focused on objective views of religion. For me religion has always been something that a person feels. It is an internal conviction with various outward expressions that cannot be quantified. I chose to attend Brite and seminary in general as an attempt to formulate my own subjective ideology about religion. It is from this that I have come to understand religion as beyond traditional notions of belief. From understanding religion in a postmodern context I have come to several realizations.

I have wondered how the Judaeo-Christian context as well as the Western context of religion has influenced scholarship in the field of religious studies. Does Christianity continue to determine the central and privileged norms in global debates about culturally specific ritual practices, localized beliefs on suffering, life, death, and immortality? Certainly not all but there are definitely a great number of religious scholarships that dwells on religious aspects of life, death, and the afterlife. These tools for sifting through various religious beliefs are a decidedly modern Western Christian centric enterprise. Western Christianity’s fascination with the life death and resurrection narrative can taint the way other religion are viewed. For example, it is easy to study religions such as Buddhism and the concept of atman is often viewed as having the “no soul.” The term denotes detachment from a permanent sense of self. However, this is a Western Christian view of atman. The concept of Atman can also be used to describe universal impermanence as opposed to personal impermanence. Universal impermanence means that there are no absolutes. This view of atman allows for more religious plurality and does not confine religious constructs to monolithic interpretations.

I have also questioned to notion of belief as the decisive epistemological term with respect to defining religion. Religion can be easily defined based on the practices and beliefs that a pertinent to a particular group of people. For example, Ninian Smart uses a worldview analysis to describe various dimensions of religious beliefs. According to him there are seven different dimension: doctrinal, mythological, ritual, ethical, experiential, institutional, and the material. Ironically enough he uses these dimensions as a platform to get away from both Western and Christian quantifications on the study of comparative religions. His 1998 addition of the material dimension is proof of the arbitrary nature dimensional analysis. He limits the definition of religion to specific functions of a belief system with all seven aspects as important Western construction emphasis on how to compare religions. For me as I think of religion a major aspect of it that is that Smart misses is the ineffability of religion. What would Smart make of the various views on religion that are not expressed through a particular dimension? Not all aspect of a religion fit neatly into a particular category nor are they articulated as such from various worldviews.

Lastly, I have begun question the need for justification as a part of religious studies. Much of religious studies has focused on an obsession with the justification of a particular faith. Reason as the primary factor to appeal or analyze a particular religious concern seems to be another Western Christian tradition. A major part of early Christianity was the need for apologetics. During the first centuries of the Roman Empire, the early Christians were heavily persecuted for their beliefs. Many charges were brought against them for their seemingly absurd beliefs. Thus it became necessary for survival to depend on a proverbial defense of ones’ faith. This logic to justify faith has carried over into the present and many describe religion using apologetic even if they do so by using a different name. Reason becomes the principle point for analysis. I prefer to think of religion not based on how a faith is justified through reason but how it is experienced by both the individual and the community. Religion through experience for me is a pivotal turning point for the discourse of religion. The chief concern for me related to religion is not the question what do you believe rather it is how is it lived.

Reading Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis from the Margins

Difference, Subjectivity, & Repainting White MaleStream Protestantism

Cover of "Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Ch...

Cover via Amazon

Introduction

Last week was spring break, and I decided to take the opportunity to read books from my bookshelves that I had owned for a few years, but had only glanced at a few pages. In my early seminary/grad school years, I had vested interest in reading up on the Emergent/Emerging Church. A number of my peers and acquaintances (of the liberal Wesleyan & conservative Reformed traditions) had read Brian McLaren and challenged me to do the same. It all started with me reading Jesus Creed by Scot McKnight, a fairly influential book on my faith journey. I may get to blogging about influential books, but for now, I turn to Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis.

My Deep Appreciation For This Book

Having been made familiar with Emerging/Emergent Christian literature, I was not surprised by many of the questions that Rob Bell was asking. Contrary to popular summaries of Rob Bell’s work, he is actually very traditionalist in his theology; no where does he states that “tradition” or “orthodoxy” in and of itself is “bad.” He sees himself as part of the tradition of Martin Luther (though not Lutheran) but Protestantism, forever reforming and changing Christianity, repainting it is what he calls it. “Orthodoxy” should lead us on a path in search of mystery; it is paradox left unconquered that is part of the life of faith. Bell even refers to Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation of Exodus 19, that Moses’ encounter with the mystery of God on Sinai means the beginning of a new journey. It is this mystery that draws the community of faith together, and Christians have generally trusted their forebears with providing the appropriate “springs” to talk about the divine.

I was also very impressed with Bell’s mentioning of segregationist Christians’ use of scripture to justify their racist beliefs: “It is possible to make the Bible say whatever we want it to, isn’t it? […] Nazis, cult leaders, televangelists who promise that God will bless you if you just get out your checkbook, racists, people who oppress minorities and the poor and anyone not like them- they can all find verses in the Bible to back up their agendas.” Unlike MacLaren’s earliest works, Bell was honest about racial injustice in the U.S. Really, this is all anti-racist Christians want; a truthful conversation where racial injustice is not hidden. I also enjoyed the comments Bell had to say about the Bible: that the Bible HAD to be interpreted, while fundamentalist (Protestant) Christians claim they are only relying on the word of God, no what they really mean, as Bell and others persuasively argue, is that fundamentalists rely on what other people have said about God’s word given to human beings. Bell stresses that subjectivity is everything, and everything is subjective.

Now that Rob Bell has opened up this conversation, the debate continues, who are the most trustworthy interpreters of Scripture? Whose interpretation is valued? Why is she an authority?

Accepting Bell’s Invitation To Criticize Velvet Elvis

In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell makes it clear that he is open to criticism, and that because this is a conversation, he doesn’t have a final say. I readily accept this invitation, a kind, critical response in dialogue with Womanist Theologians.[1] In Womanist theology, much like Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis, subjectivity is highly valued. The moral principle of Radical Subjectivity is described as a defiant posture and audaciousness, that come with habits of serving inquiries about oppression and that aid black women to rise above their circumstances as marginalized; it is the Spirit-filled boldness of black women of all ages to challenge racism, sexism, and classism.[2] Radical Subjectivity then, just is not about freedom, it is about the creation of social spaces that will affirm difference. Difference is something that Rob Bell tends to avoid talking about. In fact, to make Scripture relevant for people of faith today in the here and now, Bell’s choice of hermeneutic is one in which we look for similarities with characters in Scripture over and against difference. “The ancient Jewish prophets had these same kinds of spiritual experiences that we do, and they had the same sense that something holds it all together.” In another work, Sex/God, Rob Bell remarks, “What we often do is reverse the creative process that God initiated. We start with different cultural backgrounds and skin colors and nationalities, and its only when we look past these things that we are able to get to what we have in common- that we are fellow image bearers with the shared task of caring for God’s creation. We get it all backwards. We see all of the differences first, only maybe later, maybe do we begin to see the similarities. The new humanity is about seeing people as God sees them.”

He continues, “Moments when all of the ways that we divide ourselves and rank each other and convince ourselves of how different, better, and unalike we are disappear, and we are faced with the fact that first and foremost, we are humans. In this together. And not that much different from each other.”

Variation in the human experience is vilified in Rob Bell’s texts. He is willing to admit that everything is subjective, but is he being honest about his own white male liberal Protestant subjectivity? Yes, I agree, consenting to the doctrine of the imago Dei means that we affirm the humanity of everyone. But let me ask you something, what does it mean to be human? And this is where the rubber hits the road, where the studies of race and religion collide like electricity to the insides of a light bulb. Similarly, attributing difference between God and humanity does not work for Rob Bell; God’s experience is our experience: “They aren’t two different things: God’s joy over here and our joy over there. They are the same. God takes great pleasure in us living as we were made to live” (Velvet Elvis). Womanist understandings of human subjectivity, from writers like bell hooks and Jacqueline Jones Royster, teach us that acknowledging, affirming, and celebrating difference is essential to embracing the Stranger’s humanity. Trinitarian theologies of creation and the Womanist moral principle of Radical Subjectivity go hand in hand: there is difference- in- unity in the Godhead just as there is a freedom to create space to love the Other, that which transcends our experience.

Jacqueline Jones Royster wrote of her experiences in the classroom, having heard that everything is subjective, that place matters, only to learn that when it came to the final authority on history and everything that matters, white voices were placed above all others. Royster puts it this way, “I have come to recognize, however, when the subject matter is me and the voice is not mine, my sense of order and rightness is disrupted. In metaphoric fashion, these ‘authorities’ let me know, once again, that Columbus has discovered America, and claims it now, claims it still for a European crown.”[3] As I mentioned before, radical subjectivity is about freedom for difference. The recognition of difference is not only difference of skin color, gender, or class, but also one of place. If place remains hidden to the audience, certain voices remain privileged over and against those on the margins. Rob Bell begins Velvet Elvis with “Around 500 years ago, a man named Martin Luther raised a whole series of questions about the painting the church was presenting to the world. He insisted that God’s grace could not be purchased with money or good deeds.” This is all good and true, but without acknowledging where Luther proclaimed “Here I stand,” is not this just another reminder for Christians of racial minority communities that white Christians still own Christianity, that Columbus discovered America?

With this seeming aversion to particularity, Rob Bell denies his own whiteness, his own story as a Gentile Christian in the redemption history of YHWH. But this is how white privilege functions: emerging/emergent Christians can write about the Jewishness of Jesus and a whole host of other rabbis but never once talk about their/ our Gentile place in the story. Without a conversation about the Gentile place in the story, we fail to understand Jesus’ mission in the New Testament, as well as our own places in the story of the Jews. The story of the Gentiles, as Paul puts it in Romans, is engrafted into the story of God’s people, the Judeans. The differences between the Jews & Gentiles are not eradicated, they are reconciled; these differences (these bodies, these histories and these cultures) still exist, but they are made one in the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ.

[1] Womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender.

[2] Taken from the book, Black Church Studies: An Introduction, and the definition may or may not have been written by the author of this post. 😉

[3]Quote taken from Jacqueline Jones Royster’s essay “When The First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own.”  I am indebted to blogger JK Gayle for sharing this article with me.

 

 

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