Avatar and Eco-Theology :: Body and Mind

Below are the substance of the comments I gave to kick off the conversation as a part of a panel with Monica Schaap Pierce and Elizabeth Johnson on Avatar and ecological theology:

Two rhetorical questions:

How many of the nearly 7 billion people in the world would you say don’t know that the earth is in ecological crisis for which humans are largely responsible—that is, don’t know about extinctions, pollution, and unprecedented major changes in the oceans, atmosphere, and soil?

[Not many]

How many, on the other hand, don’t care, or at least live as if they do not care?

[A considerably larger number!]

If it is true that many, many more people know about the ecological crisis than care enough to change, then the problem is not a matter of a lack of information—though new and better information always helps. The problem is much more a matter of the will and of a moral failure. And this failure is where Avatar and ecological theology meet—in pointing out that too many of us are living with our moral vision grounded in the wrong story. Both Avatar and ecological theology are concerned with the story we are living in—a story centered on consumption and self-fulfillment—and both are concerned with proposing an alternate story, a different way of living. Living in the frame of a different story leads to a different way of seeing the world, and a different way of seeing leads to a different way of acting.

Before we go deeper into Avatar using the thought-tools that theologians use to think about the Christian story, I want to take a look behind the story of Avatar.

So far, my favorite critical comment about the movie points to a deep irony: “Only in America is it possible to spend $400 million dollars producing and marketing a film that denounces the evils of capitalism and the neo-colonial political economy.” That is to say, that while Avatar’s story may open a few hearts and minds to our ecological crisis, in many ways the movie is also a symptom of the very disease it diagnoses. The $250 billion dollars people have spent to see the movie (and I’ve contributed twice in preparation for our conversation) indicate that a lot of people have driven to the mall and spent $12 to huddle together for three hours wearing cheap pairs of petroleum-based 3-D glasses assembled and shipped by people working long hours for little pay. Many of these viewers munched popcorn and sucked down soda made mostly from corn-products grown in endless square miles of mono-culture fields where other species have been driven out by the use of millions of gallons of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which subsequently drain off into the rivers and oceans. In short, both producing and consuming Avatar looks a lot like digging deeper into the very unobtanium mine we’re supposed to deplore. And the vast majority of us are willing to ignore that material backstory because we are all addicted to our way of life. Yes, every connotation of the word addiction is intended.

Ok. That was a little heavy. But our ability to entertain our minds with a story projected on a screen, all the while ignoring the material backstory of the whole scene is exactly what I want to focus on. The story of Avatar relies on a deep division, what theologians call a dualism, between mind and body; that is, it relies on the notion that minds and bodies are separable in some way.

When Jake Sully climbs into the pod and the link is forged between his broken human body and the Na’vi avatar body, his mind or soul (for this talk, I’m going to equate the two) leaves one body and travels to another. And the way we see the story, when Jake’s mind leaves one body and goes to another, he leaves one body and goes to another. But it is not just the space-traveling human beings who have this technology. The movie ends with Jake permanently moving out of one body and into the other by traveling “through the eye of Eywa” by means of the ritual and prayer of the whole Na’vi people on his behalf. Jake is thus born again, and he discards his broken, scarred, and polluted earthly body in order to take up residence in a pristine, ecologically sound Na’vi body. In this story, Jake’s mind can occupy either body, but it can only occupy one body, and therefore, somehow it is separable from both bodies.

I’m not going to spend my time criticizing Avatar for this mind-body dualism; not only is most religious criticism of movies unproductive, it also ends up sounding kind of whiney. Instead, I want to use Avatar as a mirror. The focus of my comments is to ask why the story of this dualism is the story that James Cameron wants to tell us, and why we find the story both compelling and plausible. I am more interested in why this story works for us, why we are convinced without even a second thought when we see this mind-body dualism. I think that the fact that Avatar works so well as a story for us reveals something about us, something about the way that we think about minds and bodies and the connection between them. Now, it’s time for two surprising suggestions:

1)     Avatar works for those of us who live in late-capitalist Western culture because we inhabit one of the most dualistic human cultures that has ever existed.

2)     Christian theology has the resources to address and overturn this dualistic thinking, even though it is partly responsible for it in the first place.

We like to think that we who are living today—especially we Americans—are realistic, well-educated about the way the “real world” works in contrast to the superstitious and unscientific people of history. Are we really less dualistic, however? We live in a world where the domain of the mind is (for better and for worse) is further and further divorced and abstracted from the domain of bodies. Two relevant examples:

1)     Today, while we may not worry about ghosts or spend time keeping evil spirits from bringing the plague, we live in fear concerning the movements of a different spirit, whether it is going up or down, where it is strong, where it is weak, whom it favors, whom it does not. We call this spirit “the Market,” and it is amazing how people will leap into action when they think that the Market is on the move. There are many people (and many Fordham grads) whose job it is to anticipate the movements of the market in order to decide about where millions of dollars should go—into Euros, Yen, Dollars, or Deutschmarks; into stocks or bonds. And when this money flies all over the globe, no one sees it, no one touches it, no one has a handle on it. Yet, the consequences of these decisions, of sending this invisible money to one place versus another, (consequences, by the way, that are never visible to the person making the decision) might be hundreds of people losing or finding jobs, thousands of acres of forest cleared for a new “development,” or millions of gallons of water used in the manufacturing process of another device or trinket. The point here, is that the material level (the level of bodies, dirt, water, and trees) and the mental level (the level of minds, souls, decisions, etc.) are almost entirely invisible to each other. They almost never meet directly. We have a really hard time thinking about the material level and the mental level at the same time. And because we don’t see the Market and the forest at the same time, we often end up sacrificing the forest to the market, which is why one theologian argues that “Economics supasses theology as a docetic [that is, a dualistic] science” (Rasmussen, 116).

2)     For a second example, isn’t the internet the perfect paradigm for our dualism? Here is an endless domain of the mind, a mental playground where very important things are always happening. Who is friending, de-friending, re-friending, or changing their relationship status now? What new snarky comment is appearing on someone’s blog? Do I have new email? I’m not claiming special righteousness here, not presuming to be a judge. What I do want to note, however, is how much the mental playground of the internet is totally abstracted from the material level that supports it. In order to sustain this perpetual phantasmagoria of the mind, a huge material investment is required, and that material investment remains largely invisible to us. The electricity to run these computers comes from coal mines, oil wells, huge hydro-electric dams, or nuclear power plants. The metal bits in your computer and in the telecommunications cables come from mines like the one in Avatar, and end up in huge toxic heaps. And most obviously, there are hours upon hours of time in which our bodies sit passively (at most, munching or fidgeting) while minds flit here and there through the ether. And while our minds are occupied flitting and flirting on facebook, another creature—the last of its species—breathes its final breath, another thousand gallons of industrial run-off pours out into a river, and what little ecological integrity remains stands vulnerable without political protection. Again, the level of the mind (the level at which we interact with the internet) and the level of the body (the material story behind the internet) are almost entirely separated, almost entirely invisible to each other.

And so, I would argue, that in our culture, the interests of bodies (using the term “bodies” very loosely here) are almost always subordinated to the pathologies of our minds. Our mind-body dualism is the reason that the mind-body dualism essential to the plot of Avatar doesn’t even make us bat an eye. It’s not odd to us because we live in it and we live it out every day. Avatar is our fantasy. But our dualism, the ability to hold minds and bodies apart, is proving fatally toxic to God’s creation.

My second suggestion is that Christian theology has the resources to respond to and overturn this dualism, despite a long history of emphasizing souls over bodies, and separating the spiritual from the material. Unfortunately, I can only give the briefest sketch of these resources. Take a theology course, or become a major to learn more.

Whenever the Bible talks about the place of final redemption—what Christians have come to call “heaven”—it uses very earthy pictures—feasts, parties, rivers, mountains, gardens. In fact, perhaps the clearest description is found in Revelation 21, in which “a new heaven and a new earth” is the place where perfect fellowship is finally restored. But this “new heaven and new earth,” quite clearly is not some perfect planet light-years away like Pandora. It is this very earth under our feet redeemed and changed, to be sure, but this very earth on which God intends to dwell with God’s beloved creatures. For this reason one theologian says, “heaven is great, but it’s not the end of the world!” (N.T. Wright).

Likewise, and closer to my central point, the very clearest picture of redemption is the resurrected body of Jesus—which Christians have always held dear as a promise of the resurrection of these bodies (redeemed and changed, to be sure), but these bodies. What I want you to notice, though, is that Jesus’ wounds aren’t gone. The resurrected body of Jesus is not the mind of Jesus in a new, blue, 9 foot tall, 115 pound supermodel’s dream. No, Jesus carries his wounds, body and mind together, into redemption; the body is made new, made whole, but not in such a way that the old scars are left behind, or forgotten.

And so, I suggest, that for Christian theologians, the way that we wound and scar the planet we live on matters profoundly. God may redeem these wounds, it is true, but we will continue to live in them, and live with them in the life that is eternal. Christian salvation, then, is not the end of the material story in the final triumph of the souls over bodies, but the final marriage in which the dualism between bodies and souls is overcome.

Avatar and Eco-theology

On Thursday of this week (the 25th) I’ll be sitting on a panel discussion of Avatar with Elizabeth Johnson and fellow graduate student Monica Schaap Pierce. We’ll be talking about the religious themes in the movie and about intersections with contemporary ecological theology.

I’m planning on drawing out the mind-body dualism that is essential to the plot of the film (i.e. Jake Sully, or Jake’s mind/soul, spends the entire movie traveling in between two different bodies). Rather than simply criticize the movie on this point—like shooting fish in a barrel, to use a decidedly un-ecological metaphor—I’m going to suggest that the fact that this plot works so well most of us don’t even bat an eye reveals more about us than about James Cameron. From day to day, we live in and live out a mind-body dualism at least as pronounced as the one depicted in the film. So, I’ll draw out some of the negative consequences of this dualism for creation, and suggest that Christian theology—while complicit in many ways as a source of this dualism—has the resources to respond to and overcome modes of thinking  that privilege minds/souls at the expense of bodies.

The event is intended to attract interest for undergraduate theology courses and to push those students considering a theology major over the brink. There will be free discussion after our comments and free pizza to nourish the hungry. I’m quite curious to see what direction the conversation will go. If you are on campus, consider dropping by Keating Hall, room 124 at 12 pm.

I’ll post the text of my comments after the event.

Freudians and Theology

Alongside the very productive collision in the last decade between theology (particularly political theology) and a certain strain of Freudian theory/Continental philosophy, I’ve begun noticing that an increasing number of theologically trained folks are also carrying psychoanalytic credentials. I’d love to peg out the reason for this trend. It may well be due simply to the influence of Agamben, Zizek, Badiou, though I wonder if there isn’t another source of the interest—for example, in a sense that analysis is a better pastoral tool than the standard fare offered in pastoral education.

At any rate, I know that several of the folks regularly stopping through here are always looking for a good podcast to while away the hours at work. On the train from Albany this morning, I listened to a recording from 2002 of Eric Santner talking about Freud, Franz Rosensweig, and the intersection of psychoanalysis and theology. While it’s by no means intended to serve as an introduction, the Psychotheology of Everyday Life, is likely as good a place as any to start the arduous task of coming to grips with the technical language intrinsic to the larger conversation. Santner is good about both defining his terms and bringing in concrete examples.

I can’t remember where I found out about this recording, so I can’t tip my hat to [Jeremyanyone in particular. I’ll return my thanks by passing on the recommendation.

That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!

Among the many unsung benefits of entering the discipline of theology is the opportunity to ponder brilliant thoughts from some of the most erudite minds and sensitive spirits of history. Another unsung benefit is getting to read the bizarre nonsense that some of the same erudite minds slough off  along the way.

Along the lines of Stephen Colbert’s occasional segments by the same title, I thought I’d offer two quotes (with commentary) that made me say, “That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!”

Paul Tillich:

“The concreteness of man’s ultimate concern drives him toward polytheistic structures; the reaction of the absolute element against these drives him toward monotheistic structures; and the need for a balance between the concrete and the absolute drives him toward trinitarian structures.” [1]

A Tillich-inspired Recipe:

  1. Take your ultimate concern.
  2. Average the concreteness of your ultimate concern with the absolute element also found therein.
  3. Remove the polytheistic and monotheistic by-products.
  4. Voila! A Trinitarian drive!
  5. Drop the trinitarian drive in your Volvo, and not only will your gas milage dramatically improve, but the circumincessio occuring in your engine is now totally self-lubricating!

Friedrich Schleiermacher:

“Thus, in fact, people become all the more indifferent to the church the more they increase in religion, and the most pious sever themselves from it proudly and coldly. Nothing can in fact be clearer than that seekers of religion are in this association [i.e. the church] only because they have no religion; they persevere in it only so long as they have none.” [2]

Indeed, one excellent measure for just how much true religion a person might have would be the degree of coldness and pride with which that person passes by any religious establishment. People with a wholehearted dedication to the church are clearly (nay, most clearly) the most muddleheaded irreligious shams you could ever encounter!


[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 221.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 172.

arguments for God’s existence :: Paul Tillich

I’ve been delighted by a few gems here and there while reading through Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, but one of the best so far has been his treatment of arguments for the existence of God. Beyond a bit of freshman excitement, I can’t say that I’ve ever invested myself too heavily in arguing for God’s existence—it has just never seemed like the sort of thing where arguing actually did much good.

Well, Paul Tillich gave the issue a genuinely intelligent treatment that I haven’t heard before in quite these terms:

It is a remarkable fact that for many centuries leading theologians and philosophers were almost equally divided between those who attacked and those who defended the arguments for the existence of God. Neither group prevailed over the other in a final way. This situation admits only one explanation: the one group did not attack what the other group defended.

Tillich goes on to argue that, among other confusions, attributing “existence” to God is already problematic insofar as it renders God a determinate Being among beings.

Actually they [the scholastics] did not mean ‘existence.’ They meant the reality, the validity, the truth of the idea of God, an idea which did not carry the connotation of something or someone who might or might not exist.

He continues by arguing that every argument for the existence of God is more or less a failure qua argument, but that these arguments are unparalleled statements of the inerradicable question mark overhanging human finitude.

The arguments for the existence of God neither are arguments nor are they proof of the existence of God. They are expressions of the question of God which is implied in human finitude. This question is their truth; every answer they give is untrue.

What the arguments end up “proving” is that there are trajectories in the structure of human existence that remain inexplicable in terms of human experience.

The ‘first cause’ is a hypostatised question, not a statement about a being which initiates the causal chain….In the same way, a ‘necessary substance’ is a hypostatized question, not a statement about a being which gives substantiality to all substances.

The finite conditions of goodness, being, causation, truth, meaning, purpose, etc., all depend for their validity on some unconditioned Highest instance. The trouble occurs when this necessary structural position in human thought and experience is identified, point blank, with God. Onto-logical necessities are taken to indicate the existence of a highest Being. Unfortunately, this is already to “fit” God into the structure of Being-as-we-know-it, which is an implicit denial of God’s transcendence. God is, of course, wilier than to be pinned down so easily!

All quotes from Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 204-210.

NAPS 2010

I received some good news in the last week. My proposal to the “Rhetoric of Heaven” section was accepted, so I’ll be presenting a paper at NAPS in Chicago this coming May. Here’s the abstract that I submitted:

Gregory of Nyssa’s Bodies: Human, Animal, and Celestial

Inhabiting the boundary between heaven and earth, the human body is the site of intense scrutiny in Gregory of Nyssa’s De hominis opificio. The task of understanding the human body necessitates concomitant inquiry into the nature of animal and celestial bodies in order to see more clearly the differences and similarities that constitute humanity’s liminal nature. My paper argues that Gregory is concerned with the “making of the human” not only in terms of an etiological reading of Genesis, but also that Gregory himself “makes the human” in relation to animals and angels, and that in the process Gregory has a strong theological investment in the conceptual construction of animal and celestial bodies.

In a close reading of De hominis opificio that draws on the research of Sarah Coakley and J. Warren Smith among others, my paper proceeds in four sections—the first considering the formal and functional implications of the divine image in human flesh (and its absence in the flesh of animals); the second examines the material difference that the image of God makes in human flesh, and the physio/logical construction of human flesh over against animal bodies. The third section inquires into the eschatology of human flesh and the double function of desire as both bestial and angelic. Paradoxically for Gregory, the very structure of desire that is shared with the animals constitutes the propulsive drive by which humans are drawn along the trajectory of spiritual ascent to join the celestial crowds in God’s praise (albeit animal desire in a sublimated form). Finally, the fourth section determines more precisely how Gregory’s theological investment in human uniqueness guides the contours of his construction of bestial and angelic bodies vis-à-vis the human in De hominis opificio.

Zizek :: what humans will never know

Here is Slavoj Zizek’s answer to the question: What will human beings never know?

Do you find his answer at all plausible, or does he obscure and deny knowledge that we ought to have confidence in (gaining)? Do you think that the creation he describes might still be called good? Does such a vision of creation undercut or inspire wonder, awe, and reverence?

I see a connection in Zizek’s thought here with the conviction of Augustine and other early Christian authors that the being of creation is essentially derivative and incomplete, and all the more so when any creature turns away from God. Things are most real when they exist according to the manner in which God fully delights in their existence. The slippage and gaps (what Zizek here calls “blurriness”) that we experience in reality can be attributed to our own fallen psychology (a divide between our minds and creation “as God intended”), but might also at a deeper level be attributed to the derivative being of creation itself.

At any rate, I’m more and more interested these days in the points of incomprehensibility in creation—not at all in the rather facile sense that these unexplainable bits are stumbling blocks to science and proofs of God’s existence or activity—but in the sense that fractures and incompleteness seem to be an inexorable part of human life, and even Spirit-filled redeemed life. Paying attention to the points at which orders and systems break down or turn absurd is perhaps the best way to understand what is “normal” within those systems and orders.

If I were to sketch out this thought trajectory, it might run something like this: We search in vain for the site of total satisfaction, total fulness, totally saturated presence. There is a hole in creation that pierces the very core of human subjectivity. We could call it a God-shaped hole, if God had a shape, or if this fundamental lack pointed in a straightforward manner to God—but at minimum, its not obvious to everyone that it does point to God (or which god, for that matter). The interminable “blurriness” of creation, of our own selves, of each other, and most of all of God, persists even amidst the conviction that God has broken into history. Christian faith is actually nourished by this hole insofar as it is an inexhaustible source of desire; hope stretches out into this abyss on the conviction that God has been intensively present in Jesus, and will again be extensively present through the work of the Spirit already in-process. So, in some quiet manner, God accompanies creatures in and through a creation that remains incomplete—that very incompleteness the cause of a desire that stretches out and clings to grace where it is (made) capable of recognizing it.

h/t: Verso

Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction

Here’s the introduction from one of my term papers (my favorite of the semester) to let you in on what I’ve been mulling over lately:

Among several theses advanced over the course of his text, The Animal that Therefore I Am, Derrida argues that the history of writing can be divided into two classes: writers who have seen and been seen by an animal, and those who have never been addressed in this way.[1] “Being seen” signifies a recognition of the impenetrable difference of the animal without, on the basis of that difference dismissing the gaze of an animal as an other with no claim. Suffice it to say, he does not find the latter class to be an expansive tradition. “For thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. There you have a thesis: it is what philosophy has, essentially, had to deprive itself of. It is the difference between philosophical knowledge and poetic thinking.”[2] The poetic imagination, in contrast to the philosopher’s, has from time to time had the courage to stand in the gaze of the animal and to write as one who is seen. The “immense disavowal” of the animals’ gaze on the part of the philosophic tradition has enabled philosophers of all stripes to lump all animals together in a single undifferentiated term, “animal,” washing over tremendous differences for the sake of a convenient category for non-human creatures.[3] The presumption that Derrida calls into question is that the difference between humans and animals is such that a single, clean line can be drawn, leaving “the animal” on one side (in all the multiplied differences among animals) and “the human” on the other. Of course, this clean distinction between “the human” and “the animal” has borne profound conceptual and political ramifications—enabling the construction of notions of utter human uniqueness and justifying instrumental regimes of domestication, production, experimentation, exploitation, and habitat encroachment which subject animals, often ruthlessly, to larger human projects.[4]

The Christian theological tradition has played no small part in constructing the human-animal distinction as we know it and has brought a substantial ideological investment—particularly in the notion that human beings are uniquely created in the image of God—to the task of differentiating human beings from “the animal” in a thoroughgoing manner.[5] There is no shortage of examples of theologians participating in the “immense disavowal” that Derrida imputes to the philosophic tradition.[6] Nevertheless, there are perhaps resources (resources which may have remained hidden from Derrida’s sight) within the theological tradition for the subversion (or deconstruction) of this powerful (main)stream of thought at the foundation of Western cultural and political edifices. Continue reading “Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction”

Gary Anderson :: Genesis of Perfection (Review)

The Paradise narrative of Genesis 2-4 haunts its readers with a host of lacunae that call for return after return to the text in order to venture out on various explanatory bridges. The story of Adam and Eve proceeds at a breathless pace, offering bare details of dialogue and action without developing a full and complete background. The movements of the text are sudden and superficial in a way that hints at an oceanic depth of backstory. These abyssal lacunae are all the more hauntingly urgent for readers because this narrative purports to account for humanity’s origins and provide a “place” for human beings in the web of cosmic relations. Perhaps for that reason, the spare and enigmatic compositional lines of this text have been a womb bearing an astounding variety of interpretations and explanations, the richness of which are an unparalleled gift. Gary Anderson’s Genesis of Perfection [1] attempts to takes stock of a number of these structural lacunae in the text of Genesis 2-3 and introduce a few of the myriad interpretive efforts that have inscribed fuller understandings of the universe into the lines of the Genesis narrative. In order delimit his sources to a manageable horde, Anderson focuses on readings of Genesis from within the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism and the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy.

The contemporary genesis of Anderson’s text is his sense that the divorce in the last few centuries between the history of composition (undertaken in historical-critical precision) and the history of reception (for which the origin of the text is often of little interest) belies an impoverishing narrowness (xvi-xvii). Continue reading “Gary Anderson :: Genesis of Perfection (Review)”

on gender and God :: Gregory of Nyssa

“No one can adequately grasp the terms pertaining to God. For example, mother is mentioned in place of ‘father’ (Song 3:11). Both terms mean the same, because the divine is neither male nor female (for how could such a thing be contemplated in the divinity, when it does not remain intact permanently for us human beings either? But we all shall become one in Christ, we will be divested of the signs of this distinction together with the whole of the old man). Therefore, every name found [in Scripture] is equally able to indicate the ineffable nature, since the meaning of the undefiled nature is contaminated by neither female nor male….Hence the Song says that a crown is placed upon the bridegroom by his mother. Since the nuptials and bride are one, one mother places the crown upon the bridegroom’s head.”

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, Homily 7.

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.”