Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (part 1 of 3)

Over the next few days I will post a reflection paper written for a course in ecological theology. The assignment was to draw connections between Christian doctrine, ecological integrity, and social justice.

To study the history of the human race is to encounter a startling variety of brutalities and barbarisms. When we learn about the Roman Empire and the pax romana, we inevitably hear rumors of the ardor surrounding the ritual blood and gore of the Empire’s arenas. The high-mannered civilization of Victorian England appears resplendent with strong moral fiber, but cast a long dark shadow over lands where putatively ignorant natives were either enlightened (by assimilation) or pressed into service. In the seemingly endless iterations of this dual theme, we marvel that people capable of such beauty and sensitivity can simultaneously be so crude, myopic, and morally deranged. In the unprecedented technological development and material standards living in North Atlantic culture (now making inroads as global culture through the machinations of the free market), what is the latent barbarism to which we are, presumably, anaesthetized?

When the students of 2200 or 2500 or 2700 AD recount the life of the 20th and 21st centuries, will they find that our short-sighted obsession with ever-expanding economic growth in the face of obvious ecological and social harm simply beggars belief? Will they ask how people could be so foolish as to undercut their own health and happiness while coercing billions of others with the whims and wastes of their greed in enforced and anonymous silence? Our seeming ignorance of the insoluble link between ecological integrity and social justice (or our willingness to disregard both) may be the most shameful aspect of our society’s legacy.

The public speaking advice to “imagine your audience naked” can be performed as a global antidote to pretense. The beggar from Delhi’s slums and the corporate officer in the Leer-jet overhead are, despite the “different worlds” they inhabit members of the same species—complete with moles, holes, wrinkles, and hair in bodily nooks. A little ecological imagination is a tremendous way to relativize the power relations that attend differences in class, wealth, or education! Despite modern (and pretentious) attempts to think about human history apart from creation—casting nature in the role of passive backdrop, raw material for development, or muse for aesthetic inspiration—human beings are organisms that arise from the dirt in order to breath air, take nutrients from plant and animal flesh, excrete their wastes, reproduce, socialize, and die back to the dust.[1]  Human history is natural history; there is no realistic trajectory of “progress” that leaves the integrity of the whole planet out of the picture.

Concurrent with the forgoing thoughts, [the assigned reading from] Professor Christine Hinze and James Nash establishes the inseparability of social justice and ecological integrity. The degradation of the natural world cannot but affect the people whose lives are inseparable from nature. From the perspective of the whole human species, ecological degradation is nothing less than suicidal self-endangerment. Injustice becomes apparent insofar as the wealthy and powerful are better able to insulate their lives from the effects of their folly, temporarily passing their impact off onto others. Christine Firer-Hinze argues, “If my ecological location includes my body, and my survival as an embodied, spiritual being depends on certain positive relations to my physical environment, then it is not possible to speak morally about human dignity apart from ecological concern.”[2]  The degree to which we actually honor the human dignity of others, then, is revealed by the way in which we protect the ecosystems and land in which others live, or by our failure to do so. Thus, the impulse to look after the health of the planet is not an aesthetic preference for those fortunate enough to enjoy “wilderness.” It is first of all a moral imperative relative to our fellow humans. Furthermore, it is a task with deep moral and spiritual consequence relative to creatures co-inhabiting the planet and the land on which they live. We cannot be whole and healthy human beings in abstraction from our place in the ecological order; thus, human flourishing (including salvation!) must be described in terms of re-integration with the natural world—or, more biblically, peace in the land.


[1] Jürgen Moltmann (rather unusually) describes postmodern thought, not as the deconstruction of gender, identity, culture, or political discourse, nor as the final abandonment of metaphysics but rather as an attempt to think ecologically. Breaking the illusion that human history can be thought over-against nature as a line tracing human progress re-introduces the ecological interplay of every species of life with every other. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), xvi, 194-95. Or, as Joseph Sittler is reputed to have said often, “All the createds are relateds.”

[2] Christine Firer Hinze, “Catholic Social Teaching and Ecological Ethics” in And God Saw that it was Good, ed. Christiansen and Grazer. (Washington DC: US Catholic Conference, 1996), 176.

ecological thinking :: the basileia of God

The Greek word basileia underlies the “kingdom” of “kingdom of God” in English translations of the New Testament. The word can, and has, be translated by a range of terms, from “reign” to “empire” to “regime” and more.

I’m wondering what would shift in our thinking about the human relationship with creation (or conversely, what might shift in our thinking of the human relationship with God) if we began to use another term, already theologically freighted, namely “Dominion.”

“Dominion” is, of course, the English word most frequently used to translate the Hebrew word kabash from Genesis 1:28, and is a familiar term in Christian circles. It is also a pejoratively loaded term in ecological circles because it is (mis)taken to imply that humanity has a God-given right to do whatever the hell they want with God’s green earth, because it’s all here to serve us human-beans anyway. Some of us are convinced that human beings belong in both ecologically-minded circles and Christian circles, and are trying to wrestle out the best way to think about these things.

If Jesus’ ministry is to announce and inaugurate the dominion of God, setting prisoners free, restoring sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, what does that imply for our “dominion” on the planet? What do “dominion” and “love” have in common?

Ward :: Love as Economy or Ontology

“The economy of [Christian] desire is not locked into love as not-having [in distinction from some postmodern accounts]. Rather, love is continually extended beyond itself and, in and through that extension, receives itself back from the other as a non-identical repetition. Love construed as having or not-having is a commodified product. It is something one possesses or doesn’t possess. It is part of an exchange between object and subject positions. But love in the Christian economy is an action not an object. It cannot be lost or found., absent or present. It constitutes  the very space within which all operations in heaven and upon earth take place. The positions of persons are both constituted and dissolved. The linearity and syntax of Indo-European languages barely allows access to the mystery of trinitarian persons and processions: where one ends and another begins. As such suffering and sacrifice are not distinct moments, kenoo [emptying] is also and simultaneously pleroo [filling up]. The wounds of love are the openings of grace.”

Graham Ward, “Suffering and Incarnation,” in The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 205.

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 Academy and the Poor (Part 3 of 3)

(Back to Part 2

5. In the end, I still dislike framing the question in terms of justification, as if there is a right path (presumably paved with gold) to be found. Are the activities of reading, writing, and teaching just in the face of the world’s poor? I am tempted to answer simply and quickly, “no.” Nothing can be justified in the face of five year-olds dying of malnutrition and diarrhea or young girls violently robbed of virginity by uncles and cousins. To be blunt, the whole situation is shitty and we are all implicated. We all, academics included, need to hang our heads in shame—and redouble our efforts to eradicate such blatant evils. But how are we to go about dealing with these problems? Obviously, we should not isolate ourselves from the world’s horrors (frequenting only “the nice parts of town”), and when we are in position to act directly (by providing food or intervening on behalf of the vulnerable), we ought to do it. But we also need to see more clearly the tangled network of problems (cultural, social, economic, political, spiritual, ecological) that make these horrors more likely to occur, and take steps to counter them. And we all need to see it, at least in part, which is why we need skilled teachers in many disciplines. The analysis, conversation, and collaborative action that this requires is a larger and (unfortunately) much slower project.

And even beyond the quest to overcome specific problems with exact solutions, academic inquiry is no worse-off in a quest to justify its own continued existence than is, say, painting, playing the cello, attending an opera, or debating the merits of some piece of legislation. One of Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison has been haunting my thoughts for months, “The only thing I am really clear about in the whole problem is that a ‘culture’ that breaks down in the face of danger is no culture. Culture must be able to face danger and death….By finding forgiveness in judgment, and joy in terror?” The gist of Bonhoeffer’s statement (assuming I understand it), is that any activity that cannot be carried with us into the hardest and most broken parts of the world is not worth bringing along at all. Culture, in this sense, cannot be diversions that ignore suffering (like the Buchenwald zoo) or the dissipated merriment of cynics resigned to a dark “fate” (fiddling while the Titanic sinks). But, it is possible, I dare say necessary, to put expression to profound moments of beauty, rage, fear, and reverence even where taking the time to do so seems, at first glance, superfluous. What else might the first seeds of redemption (a “re-deeming,” a new birth of meaning) in the present look like? It is impossible for any of us to hold shattered lives together in a seamless narrative of “meaning,” but giving some fragments of meaning space to expand—whether howling lament or salvaged scraps of laughter-is perhaps to find God’s Spirit at work already. I do not want to be a part of any theology that floats by the slums on a luxury cruise-liner, or tours them on an air-conditioned bus. Rather, I want to find theology “in the face of danger and death,” to search out “forgiveness in judgment, and joy in terror.” Anything less is no theology at all.

The Academy and the Poor (Part 2 of 3)

(Back to Part 1)

3. The study and teaching of theology, of all disciplines, is perhaps most likely to turn out to the benefit of the poor. This assertion has never been truer than it is in the present. The hegemonic economic and political structures that bind people in poverty (or encourage them to bind themselves) are based on myths about humanity and humanity’s role on the planet. The beginnings of justice are found in the telling of a better story; the trajectory that leads to real justice culminates in worship. The operant myth behind the thick curtain is that human beings are essentially (naturally, rationally, pragmatically—pick your adverb) in charge, in control, and self-directed. Some people lose, and some people win, but the game is all about who gets the most choices. And far too many of us are eager to participate in the eschatological promise of “Progress”: perpetual growth through cycles of innovation, consumption, and commodification that opening ever new vistas of “liberation” enabling us to increasingly self-determine the reality we recieve (from family size to facial structure, from the temperature of our desk chairs to the “branding” of our own personalities).

Thus, the interminable conversation about who should bear the blame for poverty—in caricature, either the lazy, good-for-nothing, mooching addicts or the self-interested powermongers perpetuating the oppressive system that locks people out—is interminable because both options are sub-plots of the same story. Mutual service, genuine friendship, or really anything beyond the hollow pretense of politeness are not possible where the human ideal is buffered autonomy. Puffed up in our own knowledge of good and evil (our pretense to sovereignty), we die. As we die, we kill. Who can tell a story that excises this curse?  The old myth (the old lie, really) needs to die, and theology patiently but adamantly proclaims the truths that choke this dragon. Human beings are for worship and for service; human beings are for the delight of their Creator; human beings are for the good of the whole planet.  Liberation is found in the community reconciled to one another, to God, and to all creation.

Where is this story told? Foremost, it ought to be the hallmark of every church on every street corner. Yet all too often, churches have assimilated (and subsequently promulgate) aspects of the old lie. Theologians are charged with two tasks in this regard: 1) helping (polemically, if necessary) the church to express more clearly in words and action her central commitments, 2) exposing the dangers and deviations, through careful and rigorous analysis, of false stories about gods, humans and creation. Those tasks involve long conversations with people on all sides—those who are members of the church, and many who are not. Theologians, at their best, help to keep the church faithful to the poor. In part, they do so by calling to account the people and systems that benefit from exploitation.

4. Really learning theology (which only means thinking deeply about the whole gospel) always drives people toward the poor because this particular good news is about the God who favors the poor and dwells with them. There are few truly original ideas under the sun (none, according to Qoheleth), so the theologian’s task is not necessarily to formulate a host of new ideas, but to find ways of expressing the gospel that lead people to action. The ideal mode of theology is a conversation rather than a book—an interaction between people (perhaps even in a classroom) that moves toward action. The writing of books is a requisite part of this endeavor, but theological texts can only be understood properly within cycles of conversation that incorporate concrete practice. The impartial or disinterested theologian is a most perverse creature because theology is necessarily modeled as much as it is taught, insofar as it is expressed in the church’s preaching and prayer (neither of which make any sense without active service).

(On to Part 3)

Bonhoeffer Blog Conference :: Call for Papers

Come November, the theological blogging world will be abuzz with conversation about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and its echoes and implications within contemporary theology. The ever-prodigious Halden of Inhabitatio Dei, has initiated this collaborative endeavor and is asking for contributions. Consider sending Halden a few lines if you are interested in venturing an essay or a response. Those who are involved in the historic first rendition of what is sure to become a venerable tradition are likely to gain for themselves fortune, fame, and a reputation for excellent theological taste.

Probably not, but the conference will still be fun.

‘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.” 



‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 3 of 4)

(Back to Part 2)

Yet, despite insisting that divine apatheia does not override God’s scriptural self-revelation or make the divine pathos out to be an illusion, Hart insists that even the cross holds no suffering for God (355).  Through the Son, God attends and possesses the human suffering of the cross (and does so “inseparably” according to Chalcedon), but, he insists, God (qua God) does not suffer pain there. Hart rightly upholds patristic paradoxes like that of Melito of Sardis, “in Christ the impassible suffers,” but mistakenly goes further to assert that Jesus’ cry of dereliction (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) is only his “human voice,” words uttered in the place of all humanity, rather than as a expression of God torn from God.  He argues, somewhat strangely, that if this cry fits into the divine economy at all, it ought to be heard as a darker expression of the same interval whereby the eternally begotten Son is differentiated from the unbegotten Father (360). Hart insists that only the God who is beyond all suffering is capable of saving us. By restricting the suffering of the cross to the Son’s human nature, Hart (like Cyril before him) draws the blinds on the view that his own thinking about God’s infinity has opened up for him. In so doing, he foregoes an opportunity for greater theological fidelity to Scripture by a manifest preference for restrictive metaphysical preconceptions of divinity. Yet, we must be clear, Hart (again like Cyril) is not wrong in his affirmation of divine impassibility; it is just that impassibility is not a univocal description of God capable of expressing God’s character without the qualification of analogical difference. 

(On to Part 4)

‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 2 of 4)

(Back to Part 1)

Hart’s positive expression of God’s infinity opens the space to speak about divine pathos, not as a deficiency, but as another modulation of his unconquerable and incorruptible love. The fullness of divine revelation is found in Jesus Christ and as the gospels tell it, God’s life as a human being progresses inexorably, almost magnetically, toward the cross in Jerusalem where God joins humanity (and all creation) in suffering, alienation, torture, death, and in the very depths of hell. Suffering and pain are not thereby to be understood as an attribute of the unchangeable God, like an incurable affliction, but as yet one more expression of divine openness and sharing of life. The cross is God’s glory (John) precisely because it makes visible the fullness of God’s triune openness and love. The same self-giving love by which the Father begets the Son and sends forth the Spirit (and receives the joy of his life in their return) is the self-giving love that knowingly, willingly, freely, and obediently swallows the suffering and death of creation because it pains God to see his creation languish. God’s pathos is an amplification of his love rather than the weakness of a God subject to the violence, control, or coercion of others. The resurrection shows that even in stretching to encompass pain, death, and the depths of hell, God’s peace is unbroken, God’s love is unconquered, God’s infinity is undiminished. The persistence of Christ’s wounds on his Resurrected body demonstrate that wounded-ness is no diminution of God’s life and that God’s bliss cannot be etiolated by exposure to violence. Nor can it be said that death is a necessary player in this drama, or that suffering is the attribute of God whereby his love is eternally demonstrated; death is exposed as nothing, suffering is revealed to be only the short darkness of a night bounded by endless day. To recognize that God genuinely suffers in Jesus Christ is not to subject God to change because (1) this suffering is not imposed upon God but freely borne, and (2) because God’s immutability is not a flat stasis, but the tireless repetition of a fathomless generosity found both in the Trinity and in the history of salvation.

(On to Part 3)

‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 1 of 4)

Over the next few days I’m going to post the verbal fruit of my wrestling with Hart on the issue of divine impassibility. The reflections here are meant to be experimental—to see whether this line of thinking might be successful, or whether it will fall flat.

Thesis: David Bentley Hart’s strong advocacy of a positive and determinate understanding of divine infinitude provides the framework for an affirmation of divine pathos (in fidelity to scriptural descriptions of divine emotion and pain) that does not negate the traditional ascription to God of impassibility (apatheia). Unfortunately, not only does Hart pass this opportunity by, he also scorns it as he does so.

One of the central tenets of The Beauty of the Infinite is that the infinity of God’s triune life cannot be understood as something like a lack of finitude, or a negative sort of transcendence cognizable as absence from everything immanent. God is not infinite in a way that is bland and indeterminate—like an endless powerful fog—but in sheer abundance and excess. Moreover, God does not suffer from a failure to be finite, nor can infinitude be defined in dialectical opposition to created finitude—God and the universe are not opposites divided by any boundary. In other words, God’s infinity pervades the finite and always exceeds it. God’s transcendence crosses all borders and overcomes all limits. The freedom of God’s love is expressed ever anew in unspeakable creativity, transformed and transfixed in the endless self-giving exchange between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The surfeit of God’s life is marked by an infinity that cannot be exhausted or circumscribed, but repeats itself in endless modulations and harmonies on the theme of love. Far from standoffish loftiness, God’s infinity is closer than we can dare to think, yet beyond simple capture in any concept, picture, or image.

(On to Part 2)

theologians on television :: irony and testimony

Here is an interview of N.T. Wright on the Colbert Report. The good bishop manages to get a remarkable amount of content out, while simultaneously trying not to sound “too serious.” It’s both heartening and intriguing to watch someone speaking of the gospel in “public” space. Welcome to pop-culture’s gauntlet for serious theological thought. We’ll listen to whatever can be uttered full speed between the ironic and irreverent interruptions of the interlocuter. Colbert never breaks out of his character and therefore appears more “solid” on camera. Nonetheless, in an effort to maintain the humorous distance of irony, he doesn’t remain for long in any substantial position; Colbert’s TV persona is not serious enough to either pray or believe.

Wright is trying to communicate something very important, and makes a valiant effort (in his shoes, I’m sure I’d melt down completely), but the language about “two stages” of salvation probably isn’t all that helpful an improvement on the common-sense conception of “heaven.” Eschatology in six minutes or less—anyone up for the challenge?

H/T flying.farther