The Ineradicable Supersessionism of the Christian Imagination

This piece is cross posted over at AUFS; please comment there (rather than here) if you feel compelled to do so. 

As Willie James Jennings’ title would suggest, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race is a book situated at the interface between theology and history. My work hovers around the same intersection, so I came to Jennings’ book with strong interests both in the content of the argument and the method of its movements. Jennings has given us a very rich book, one that uncovers the historical and theological reasons that the stratified logics of race and colonialism have overrun—one should almost say without exception— the purported unity of Christian communion. Jennings’ text works to uncover the theological operations that underwrite the history of the last half-millennium—in which racial difference has functioned as justification for conversion by violent coercion and enslavement, and in which white Christians have regarded social, economic, and political parity for Christians of color as unthinkable, unnatural, and unnecessary. The logic of race is so deeply enmeshed in Western subject-formation that it has overpowered the political implications of theological and sacramental affirmations—e.g. that Christians share the same baptism and eat at the same table. In other words, Jennings asks: Why does whiteness trump Jesus’ body?

Jennings’ book works out a complex and multifaceted historical answer to this question—a question that white theology has repressed with hasty acknowledgments of the generalized horrors of the past.  Jennings’ book has been rightly recognized as a significant contribution to academic theology (the book won the 2015 Louisville Grawemeyer award in Religion) and has been discussed widely. Jennings’ readings of the theological formation of racial discourse in early modern and colonial authors are nuanced, careful, and illuminating. Alongside my deep appreciation for Jennings’ critical work on early modern texts and figures, however, I find myself stuck on a few questions regarding his main theological argument. In particular, I wonder if Jennings’ theological utilization of the concept of supersessionism has obscured the specifics of its history, such that Jennings inadvertently fails to escape the trajectory of Christian supersessionism even as he correctly diagnoses it as a lynchpin of Western racialized anthropology. Continue reading “The Ineradicable Supersessionism of the Christian Imagination”

image and likeness in Saint Basil and the ecology of the soul

It is commonplace among early Christian writers to distinguish between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity (rooted in Genesis 1:27), though the distinction made theologically significant in various ways. While his younger brother Gregory rejects the distinction, Basil of Caesarea employs it with some regularity. This passage caught my eye today:

“Now, he has made us with the power to become like God, he let us be artisans of the likeness to God, so that the reward for the work would be ours. Thus we would not be like images made by a painter, lying inertly, lest our likeness should bring praise to another. For when you see an image exactly shaped like the prototype, you do not praise the image, but you marvel at the painter. Accordingly, so that the marvel may become mine and not another’s, he has left it to be to become according to the likeness of God. For I have that which is according to the image in being a rational being, but I become according to the likeness in becoming Christian.” [1]

In what precedes this excerpt, Basil has been quite clear that human beings exist according to the image of God as a function of their rationality—primarily expressed in ruling over the animals. As Basil continues, it becomes evident that to craft one’s life according to the likeness of God is to adopt the Pauline clothing metaphor and “put on” Christ as a garment.

At this point I wonder if there is some tension between the image and likeness, wherein the likeness of God (paradigmatically visible in the life of Jesus) actually begins to shape and determine the image (practical reason in its ruling function) in such a way as to introduce a kenotic humility and attitude of service into its exercise. This reading is at odds with Basil, but perhaps not so much as to contradict his broader intentions.

Reading this way recognizes a certain tension between the archetypical Image of God in Christ (who in the course of Basil’s homily primarily appears as the almighty Pantocrator) and the likeness of God which human beings are to “put on” perfecting their own kindness, charity, and virtue in emulation of Jesus. Secretly, and against the grain, I see the life of Jesus breaking into Basil’s text at this point, opening up fissures in his thoroughly confident notion of the power of reason (Logos in the Greek, of course) through which trickles of living water pour.

This kind of “crafting” would also temper the spirituality which Basil enjoins upon his hearers. Basil moves very quickly from the rule that human beings exercise over the animals to the analogous rule that human beings are to exercise over their own irrational passions and vices. Both animals and passions are subdued by reason. Most of Basil’s examples of reason exercising dominion over animals, however, are instances where human beings kill, cage, or domesticate by force. As a model for spiritual discipline (not to mention as a model for relating to animals generally), this is perhaps somewhat lacking. Attempting to eradicate one’s passions and vices by clubbing, spearing, and caging them is often an exercise in repression—one that ends in futility and frustration. The Pantocrator model of spirituality presumes unrealistic control on the part of a the subject by presuming that passions can actually be bludgeoned into submission.

Better, perhaps, is the spirituality whereby the passions are tamed by giving them a distance, recognizing their power but neither capitulating to them nor seeking to slaughter them on the spot. The sort of charity that Jesus showed to sinners in caring for their immediate needs without condoning their sin or joining in it provides a better model for confronting the disreputable elements within my own character.

[1] Basil of Caesarea, On the Human Condition, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 44.

the demise of a doctrine? :: Weinandy and Tilley

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

–G.K. Chesterton

While this quip from Chesterton may not quite capture the contours of the conversation, may it at least bring a touch of humor to an unfortunately acrid encounter between Terry Tilley and Thomas Weinandy.

For those who are unfamiliar with the situation (and care to acquaint themselves further): Tilley (who, in the interest of full disclosure, chairs the department where I am a student) delivered the presidential address at the CTSA this summer on three Christological impasses. Weinandy responded, pointing to what he regarded as superficial, fallacious, and theologically dangerous elements in that address. This article subsequently sensationalized the conflict. Tilley gave a short reply, to which Weinandy added a full stop. I, on the other hand, learned about the whole mess from a fellow student.

Being neither Roman Catholic nor a member of the CTSA, I am an outsider to this conversation in many regards; but I am also, perhaps, uniquely prepared to comment on it, having taken a course on Christology from Tilley and worked carefully through several of Weinandy’s texts on the same subject. Furthermore, this conflict raises questions about the nature of the theological task and the relation of contemporary theologians to a normative tradition (and about the nature of theological normativity itself). I hope to comment on the larger issues afoot in this conversation without getting too far embroiled in the ecclesial politics surrounding them.

Weinandy’s reading of Tilley’s address is not charitable; that much is hard to dispute. Weinandy’s reading is best explained by a perception (perhaps a fear?) that Tilley’s address is indicative of a larger glacial shift, one that remains largely unspoken in the address itself, but which nevertheless represents the slow drift of academic theology into vapid conformity with an anti-ecclesial culture. Weinandy’s concerns about “relativism” and “style” certainly sound this note (though I should add, having been graded by Tilley, I can personally attest that his Christological relativism is not absolute!). To my mind, the most prescient question is less whether Weinandy responded to Tilley’s address with sufficient care and charity, (I am convinced that he did not) but whether this larger perception/fear is justifiable and whether it is justifiably applied to Tilley, or whether it is altogether misplaced.

So, where precisely is the disagreement?

Weinandy and Tilley agree in speaking about the task of theology in terms of clarifying or illuminating the mysteries of faith, taking care not to misrepresent or prematurely resolve those mysteries. Yet, Weinandy accuses Tilley of a determination to explain away the mysteries of faith in the kind of resolution of paradox that has historically marked heretical movements. And in his defense of the CDF, Tilley likely sees Weinandy upholding an unhealthily narrow fixation on particular terminology, a cathexis that distorts the concepts originally communicated by that terminology—to the detriment of the faith. In other words, both see each other defending a position that would lead to the collapse of the mysteries of faith, putting the task of theology at risk either in the stalemate of a dogged dogmatic insistence on the sufficiency of fifth-century terminology or in capitulation to a contemporary rationalistic historicism averse to any advent of the supernatural (such as the Incarnation).

So, it would seem that Tilley and Weinandy agree about the task of theology, but differ substantially on how to carry out this task. Weinandy, the historical theologian, would have us accept the dogmatic formulations of conciliar history, and then illuminate these formulae by filling out their meaning through distinctions, elaborations, and elucidations that maintain the absolute integrity of the verbal formulae used. The theologian is to explain the Christological formula of Chalcedon, for example, from the inside taking the propositional content of the formula as a foundation. The tradition’s normativity for Weinandy is largely propositional (though, I think that for Weinandy this normativity includes the cultural-intellectual framework where those propositions arose, i.e. the Christian-Platonic synthesis).

Tilley, the constructive theologian, would have us labor at some length to understand Scripture and the negotiated settlements of the conciliar tradition, and then to communicate the living truth of the tradition in the terms that best make that truth present in the contemporary situation. The theologian is to work in radical continuity with the tradition precisely by extending the tradition into the present. The tradition’s normativity for Tilley, then, is largely conceptual, and thus to a degree, not susceptible to containment within a single static vocabulary, as essential as a given vocabulary (say, Chalcedon) may remain for coming to grips with the concepts of the tradition. Tilley himself insists on expressing this in terms of a normativity of practice (in opposition to a purely intellectual conceptual normativity), but I think that the broader approach of which Tilley is representative is marked by this concern for conceptual fidelity.

Weinandy, then, either thinks that conceptual continuity is not sufficient to authentically practice theology (as distinct from propositional continuity), or thinks that Tilley’s particular conceptual development of the tradition breaks continuity and fails to measure up to the norm of the tradition. The latter charge would require a substantial engagement with Tilley’s published work, and frankly, such an engagement will fail to produce anything approaching the adoptionism/arianism that Weinandy alleges. The former, I think, requires a more extended argument than Weinandy is able to provide in his short article. Such an argument would also entail invalidating an enormous swath of contemporary theology, from Rahner to Pannenberg and beyond, figures deeply concerned to think faithfully in categories and conversations not available to early Christian writers.

Tilley is not arguing, as Weinandy suggests, that he has a monopoly on the original meaning of the terms of the Chalcedonian definition, nor that they are irretrievably lost in the abyss of history. Rather, he is arguing that it takes long, arduous work (the very sort of work that Weinandy does quite well) to inhabit the tradition sufficiently so that one can follow the contours of complex ancient conversations, and that employing the same language cannot guarantee that the same concepts are communicated. It is truly perverse for Weinandy to argue simultaneously that the plain meaning of Chalcedon is accessible to any intelligent person who reads the text with a degree of care and that Tilley has not (after a career of research) adequately grasped the Chalcedon definition. Nowhere does Tilley repudiate Chalcedon, nor call it a “total failure.” If Tilley’s recent book on Christology does not take Chalcedon as the starting point, it’s not because he’s abandoned the Incarnation of the Logos, but rather because he is tracing out the trajectory of other biblical christologies (particularly in the synoptics) that were instrumental in arriving at the convictions formulated in the creeds, but nevertheless underrepresented therein. The Disciples’ Jesus is, quite literally, a discursive effort at retracing the steps of the earliest Christological confessions, confessions that were rooted in and sustained by the practices of the communities that forged them.

Tilley’s presidential address is not sufficiently clear in articulating his conviction that the variety of christological traditions in the New Testament are not contradictory (a view that Weinandy unfairly imputes to him), but complementary in their diversity. There is more to the mysterious life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ than a single narrative trajectory can possibly contain. While Chalcedon provides a helpful hermeneutic to the New Testament, the compositional statement about two natures and a person cannot supplant the range of views of Jesus Christ that are contained in the New Testament and early Christian traditions.

To conclude, is Weinandy’s perception of an anti-ecclesial drift in the culture of academic theology justified? Perhaps, but this drift is no recent phenomenon, and it is a matter of certain conversations and movements, not a ubiquitous tipping of the theological playing field so that the academy becomes a slippery slope. Can the perception of this drift justifiably be applied to Terry Tilley in the public excoriation that he received from the pen of Thomas Weinandy? Not in the least. Weinandy needs to pick a new figurehead for the movement leading to the “Demise of the Doctrine of the Incarnation.”

Karl Rahner’s Anthropocentrism

One unavoidable aspect of attending a Jesuit school is an ever-greater familiarity with the thought of Karl Rahner. While Rahner is not a theological hero or guiding light to me, I am quite glad to have gotten to know him. However, while there is much to appreciate, and much of Rahner’s legacy that has gone unnoticed both by his theological fanclub and by his detractors, I’ve repeatedly found myself coughing at his narrowly anthropocentric approach.

Karl Rahner’s essay “Christology within an Evolutionary View of the World” attempts to reconcile Christology and evolution through a narrative of formal necessities that draws parallels between the two, apparently unrelated (or worse, divergent) story lines. The starting point of this extended narrative is the deep interconnection between consciousness (or “spirit”) and matter in the one world. Rahner reflects on what it must mean that matter has come, through the course of evolution, to become self-aware in very complex ways, and thus self-transcendent—human beings wonder at beauty and grapple with expansive questions about life’s meaning. Because the teleology of creation’s self-transcendence points to an ultimate, deeper union between Spirit and matter, and ultimately to the union of matter and spirit with their creator and sustainer, the Hypostatic Union (understood formally as the self-communication of God within creation) fits naturally into “the history of the cosmos,” which is “always basically a spiritual history” (172). His essay concludes by “plugging in” the particulars of Christian faith (e.g. Jesus Christ, Israel, church) to the abstract culmination of evolutionary trajectories in Hypostatic Union and expanding on this narrative by connecting it to the more traditional narrative of sin, alienation, redemption, and reconciliation.

The great strength of Rahner’s essay, and perhaps its deepest contribution to an explicitly ecological theology, is his effort to make the “matter/spirit” binary that pervades Western thought (in many permutations) comprehensible within the theological binary of nature and grace (and particularly the Thomistic understanding thereof). Spirit is an emergent quality of matter that is “really effected by what was there before” and yet represents “the inner increase of being proper to the previous existing reality” (164). Consciousness does not abolish matter, nor should it seek to flee from it, but rather perfects matter. Consciousness is to be understood as the natural “becoming” of matter (166). Rahner points out that even though science presupposes this transcendence, it cannot quite think in these terms (qua science) because science’s approach to consciousness is always to consciousness as an object of study; the observer herself always remains invisible (transcendent!) (169). This connection is fertile ground for ecological thinking because it de-mythologizes detached, instrumental reason and encourages a more organic understanding of the connection between spirit and matter. In humanity, matter has indeed come to reflect upon itself and to radically manipulate matter (both human matter and other kinds) according to its own interests. Yet, if consciousness is the perfection of matter in an inseparable way, then matter (all matter) must be seen as the natural ecosystem of consciousness, and therefore deserving of careful attention and care. Consciousness, in this regard, is not set over-against matter as master to slave, but belongs to it. Human perfection, subsequently, cannot be thought of in isolation from the care of all earthly matter—and provision for the flourishing of all life.

Rahner’s essay, despite efforts to marry consciousness and matter together more closely, falls prey to the critique of anthropocentrism in that he tells both stories, the evolutionary and the soteriological, with the union of matter and spirit in humanity at the center, while matter elsewhere plays a secondary role. Anthropocentric thinking may be inevitable for human beings, but—to be more precise—perhaps anthropological exceptionalism is not. Anthropological exceptionalism is the belief that humanity has a unique vocation and destiny that the remainder of creation does not share (or only shares through humanity’s administration). Rahner employs this sort of thinking when he says, “natural history develops towards man, continues in him as his history, is conserved and surpassed in him and hence reaches its proper goal with and in the history of the human spirit” (168). The created world fades into the background as the shining destiny of humanity comes to the foreground! Rahner’s construal of the culmination of creation’s history in divine self-communication—essentially a verbal metaphor—rather than in divine communion essentially limits the experience of salvation to human beings (or any other creatures capable of “knowing”). This way of telling the story risks making the rest of nature unnecessary as soon as it plays its part in producing humanity through evolution; humanity becomes the central location of redemption. Rahner evidently feels this tension, because he qualifies his account of divine self-communication by saying, “God’s communication of himself does not suddenly become uncosmic—directed merely to an isolated, separate subjectivity—but is given to the human race and is historical” (174). Despite Rahner’s hedges, however, depicting the telos of creation as the immortality of the emergent spirit/consciousness, through divine self-communication (primarily an interchange of knowledge—coming to know and being known) leaves the rest of creation aside. The most ecologically prescient aspect of the concept of self-communication is not the verbal metaphor, but that part implying coming and indwelling—“communication” understood as “transfer”. Humanity might still fruitfully be thought of as the center of creation’s knowledge of God, and even as a mediator of divine blessing, but a more robustly theo-political account of creation’s destiny (i.e. Jubilee, cosmic Sabbath, shalom, Day of the Lord) would depict peace for all of creation as integral to peace for any part of creation.

All paranthetical references are to: Karl Rahner, “Christology within an Evolutionary View,” in Theological Investigations 5, (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1966), 157-92.


Ecological Trajectories in Moltmann’s Christology

Here’s a hint of what I’ve been up to lately, (besides not-blogging). What follows is the introduction to a paper I’m working on for a course in contemporary Christology. I’d love to hear what folks think about trying to get past anthropocentrism, and about Christology as the key-stone to the endeavor. 

The major conceptual puzzle necessary to address the ecological crisis is the task of reconfiguring the relationship between human beings and the natural world on which they depend for breath and life. This is struggle for hearts and minds, concerning the way we see the world and our own place in it. Anthropocentric schemes that overemphasize human uniqueness and privilege human interests are now spurious, but difficult to avoid as a “default” that overwhelms other modes of seeing and thinking. Theologically too, if “all the world’s a stage,” humanity has been traditionally cast as the central character—a dramatic role replete with comic and tragic interaction with God and creation.[1] Yet, as we place the phenomenal scope of natural history and the evolution of life alongside the scope of the destruction within human capabilities, humanity appears as a crazed member of the chorus rushing to center stage to demand the full attention of everyone in the theatre by tearing apart the set. The rhythm and momentum of the production grind to a shocking halt; the other actors and actresses reluctantly edge off the stage one by one. Anthropocentrism has not been a good logic for the oikos of creation.           

            Yet, Christian theology operates with a principle of Christological maximalism, variously expressed, that locates the deepest intensity of God’s presence in creation in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of a human being—an anthropos at the heart of things.[2] Thus, for Christian ecotheology, imagining a Christology that is coherent in the tradition and moves beyond anthropocentrism is simultaneously a most significant desideratum and the crux maneuver for the whole systematic enterprise.[3] If Christology can be ecologically grounded in a thoroughgoing manner, then other theological loci—creation, election, reconciliation, eschatology—seem to fall into place. If Christology cannot be integrated, then all the other pieces seem to develop odd angles that prevent them from coming together in an ecological frame. Without an ecological Christology, there is clearly, painfully, a piece missing. And yet, despite the flood of ecotheological writing, relatively little attention has been given to Christology proper.[4]

            Jürgen Moltmann is widely recognized as a touchstone figure in the growing concern for ecological theology.[5] And, in searching out an ecological Christology, he is a doubly apt figure. From the beginning of his career, he has been a Christocentric theologian. Significantly, Moltmann was also one of the first theologians to recognize the importance of wholeheartedly addressing environmental degradation from a theological perspective.[6] Furthermore, the growing ecological concern in Moltmann’s theology has generated significant changes in his Christology.[7] The contention of this essay is that Moltmann’s developments represent necessary starting points for any effort to articulate faith in Jesus Christ without giving ground to destructive habits of anthropocentry thought.[8] I will also argue that although scholars have noted the ecological implications of many aspects of Jürgen Moltmann’s theology, insufficient attention has been given to the ecological significance of shifts within his Christology.

       The task of this paper, then, is three-fold. First, I will briefly document the lack of attention to the ecological significance of shifts within Moltmann’s Christology. Second, I will discuss four trajectories of development found within Moltmann’s Christology from The Crucified God, written when ecological concerns were only beginning to enter Moltmann’s agenda, to The Way of Jesus Christ, a book in which those concerns take a determinative role. Finally, I will evaluate the significance of the trajectories in Moltmann’s Christology in ecological terms and argue for the necessity of certain shifts if future Christologies are to avoid underwriting deleterious modes of interaction with the natural world.


[1] Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2/7.

[2] Despite taking all sides in the heated debates about Jesus’ historicity, ethnicity, masculinity, divinity, and humanity, Christians are inclined to attribute as much significance to Jesus’ life as possible whether in the end that significance is existential, political, theological or otherwise. The concept is from George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postleberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 94; quoted in Terrence Tilley, The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology as Reconciling Practice (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 205.

[3] The difficulty of constructing an ecological Christology is compounded by the general absence of Jesus interaction with the natural world in the memories of Jesus handed down textually. Where these interactions are addressed thematically in the gospels (Jesus walking on water, directing a miraculous catch of fish, etc.) they seem to signify Jesus’ dominion over all nature, rather than a concern for the natural world in its own right. Clearly, Jesus was not an environmentalist. He appears in the disciples’ memory as someone predominantly concerned with human injustice, illness, demonic and political oppression, and with Israel’s religious practices. 

[4] The current issues in the main discourse of Christology at present are: gender questions, Christian-Jewish interactions, interreligious dialogue, political/economic liberation. Ecology only enters these conversations secondarily (most notably in the liberation conversation). One the other hand, ecotheology only rarely touches down in Christology, finding its key loci in creation, pneumatology, eschatology. Most volumes of ecological theology sidestep Christological questions. Exceptions include: Denis Edwards, Jesus the Wisdom of God: An Ecological Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995); or Sallie McFague, “An Ecological Christology: Does Christianity Have It?” in Christianity and Ecology, ed. Dieter Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 29-45. Zzz – Does Body of God hit Christology?

[5] Examples of this recognition?

[6]  Other early figures to make ecology a programmatic element in their theology include Joseph Sittler, Rosemary Radford Ruether, H. Paul Santmire,

[7] Bauckham, Moltmann’s Theology, zzz.

[8] Perhaps the pattern Moltmann presents is only one of many possible sets of starting points for an ecological Christology. At present, however, the proposals on offer are so few that one cannot find any significant dialogue concerning ecological Christology. Any additions to the field would be significant.

The Suffering God Cannot Save :: Addendum

It seems that a few other folks are poking around with the same question as my recent series of posts on David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite and the question of divine impassibility. Their thoughts are more concise and poignantly articulated than my own stumbling efforts, so if thinking through God’s compassionate suffering is a live question for you, you might do well to visit:

Halden’s post—“Divine Suffering is Divine Impassibility”
Kent Ellers and James Merrick’s—“David Bentley Hart on the Trinity”

‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 4 of 4)

(Back to Part 3)

It is precisely because divine apatheia is not a possession subject to loss or diminution that God does not penuriously guard his life, but opens himself to creation and suffers with it. No one can change God or force God to act, no one can conjure or coerce God’s presence or action-God is never passive. But where God is open in love, he does not stand passively aloof, impervious to the plight of his beloved. God’s unchangeable infinitude is not at risk where God aches with longing and is pained by the dissolute state of creation-this too is an expression of the boundless variation within the unchanging generosity of God’s triune life. Thinking in this way helps us to express both God’s suffering and God’s apatheia in properly analogical terms. Hart correctly insists that “God is incapable of experiencing shifting emotions within himself” (as if manipulative ploys had any foothold), but to this similitudo, we must insist upon a maior dissimilitudo and say that God is not devoid of emotional intensity or insensitive with regard to his beloved creation (355). Likewise, if we are to speak of God’s aching solidarity with those who suffer, a solidarity that transgresses every boundary we can imagine (Hades itself), we must also insist that according to a maior dissimilitudo, God’s suffering does not incapacitate and diminish him (as suffering does to us). God never says, “It would have been better if…” with regard to God’s own boundless life; God’s life always is better in the mutual exchange and enrichment of the divine economy. 

Hart’s positive understanding of divine infinitude is sufficiently capacious to incorporate theological attentiveness to the whole of Scripture’s narrative with regard to God’s immutability and impassibility, including a nuanced account of the emotional intensity and pain ascribed to God’s experience therein. Unfortunately, Hart allows his metaphysical predilection for a more univocal understanding of divine apatheia to eclipse this conceptual openness and thereby falsely constrains his understanding of God and in docetic fashion meticulously evacuates the cross of the divinity hung thereupon. Despite himself, Hart helps us understand how Bonhoeffer is, in my estimation, finally correct: “Only the suffering God can help.”