Human Dignity and Recursive Violence at CTSA

Over the weekend, I was in Pittsburgh for the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America. The theme of the conference this year was “Another World is Possible: Violence, Resistance, and Transformation,” a timely and important central theme chosen by current CTSA President Maria Pilar Aquino.

I gave a paper in the Anthropology section working through some ideas around human dignity, violence, and the boundary between humanity and animality. My paper was titled, “The Recursive Violence of Human Dignity: Rethinking Creaturely Dignity as Vulnerability and Struggle.” In the time span between proposing the presentation and writing the paper, I shifted from vulnerability and struggle toward the concepts of shame and gentleness, which bear some relation in my mind.

I’ll be writing this up at greater length for an upcoming issue of the Journal of Religion and Societyso these ideas will see the light of day for a broader audience.

On Footnoting the Holocaust :: Poor Taste

I was reading two books yesterday (not at the same time, though that would be a nice skill to develop). In a striking bit of serendipity, the one book denounced the other. I suppose that this is the reader’s version of the “small-world” encounter in which a total stranger turns out to know all your best friends.

At any rate, it was the tone of the denunciation that caught my attention as being particularly tacky. Robert Jenson, in a footnote, warns about Marcionism as a particularly dangerous form of idolatry, and then adduces the Nazi regime as a particularly virulent example of this idolatry. So far so good. He then appends one more sentence suggesting that the “apostasy” of those who speak of God/ess (which is, of course, primarily Rosemary Radford Ruether—whose Sexism and God-Talk I’d just finished) is no less serious, and presupposes no less thorough a rejection of Israel’s scriptures than that of the Third Reich.

Unfortunately, even if someone wants to make the argument that Ruether has traveled beyond the bounds of orthodoxy in speaking of God/ess, it’s unhelpful to ascribe a rejection of the Hebrew scriptures to someone whose writings are quite full of appreciative references  to those scriptures. Further, when making mention of the holocaust in a footnote, it ought to be universally agreeable that one ought to avoid mentioning contemporary colleagues as guilty of the same theological errors. Even polemic theology ought to strive for a charitable measure of accuracy; this is slander, not dialogue.

The unjustified vitriol was particularly disappointing to me because on any given page, I’m much more likely to find myself in agreement with Jenson than Ruether (gender issues excepted). I’ve also seen Jenson handle similar slander with dignity and good-humor, so I had hopes that he was less likely to dish it out.

never trust anyone with the first name pseudo

Over the weekend, while reading an excellent book on the reception history of 1 Enoch  (what a life, eh?)[1], I found myself thinking through pseudonymous authorship and the nest of problems that it raises for contemporary readers in a new light. Of course, pseudonymity is an issue with a document that claims to be penned by a character from the primordial history of Genesis 1-11, but it is also an issue when we come to many of the books of Scripture (i.e. 2 Timothy, 2nd/3rd Isaiah, etc.). Posed in its sharpest form, the question that pseudonymity raises might be posed like this: “How can we ascribe the authority of divine revelation (which almost always functions as a guarantee of truth)  to a text that contains an intentional deception about its author?” The standard apology for the practice—which I think is quite a good start—points out the cultural gap between our notions of the book as a finished product resulting from the creative effort of a single person (or discrete collective) and ancient notions of authorship and authority or the challenges of textual transmission.

The piece that Reed added for me was a careful attention to the fluidity and interchange between orality and textuality—something quite remote to our own practices. First of all, the practice of reading in silent solitude (primarily as a visual activity) is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ancient reading, even if it was done in solitude—though that would have been much rarer as well—was likely done aloud. Reading was an auditory activity as much as visual.

In addition, the relative rarity and prohibitive cost of books meant that even knowledge that was written down was likely passed on elsewhere as “oral” tradition. Many historians, biblical scholars, and theologians operate with a somewhat romantic notion of oral traditions being passed down through centuries until some enterprising figure has the temerity to put it down in writing, upon which momentous occasion the oral tradition is frozen and becomes a treasured piece of the communities literary legacy. Even stating it reveals it as simplistic. Even with the same stories or teachings, oral traditions and written traditions likely overlapped and were mutually informative. A text is “read” and interpreted even where it is repeated orally, and this “reading” affects the hermeneutical approach of the hearer to all subsequent readings/hearings of any related material.One person might recount a (textual) reading to another in some detail without the benefit of the text for reference. That “reading” may be passed along to several more hearers, before being integrated into another text. Where this is the case,  oral and written traditions are mutually informative.

The role of the author in such a setting is profoundly more ambiguous than our preference for the solitary creative genius. Someone who is compelled to put a narrative or teaching to writing may have heard several versions, deriving from textual recitations and/or oral recitation. She may have a text in front of her that carries most, but not all, of the detail that she considers crucial to understanding and communicating the heart of the message. At any rate, where there is a fluid relationship between orality and textuality, and a concern to collect and pass on what one has received, it is actually an act of profound hubris to name oneself as the author of a text. Where traditions have been passed on in varying degrees of orality and their genealogy is not easily traceable, it is quite reasonable that teachings and stories should coalesce around a major figure, in whose name they are retold. In a context where orality and textuality commingle far more than our own, pseudonymous authorship is less likely a rhetorical ploy on the part of an unimportant author to gain credibility and readership for the text (by the way, this post has been guest-written by Ben Myers), and more likely a recognition that the text itself is only the transmission of a tradition that predates it by far.


[1] Annette Yoshiko Reed, Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity: The Reception of Enochic Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

h/t to a venerable teacher of my past, Bruce Fisk, for the title of the post.

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.

looking to write a book? :: orthodox eco-theology

Whenever theology and ecology come to the same table for a chat, inevitably, Eastern Orthodoxy comes up as a church that has “gotten it right.” Someone will say that they’ve never divorced flesh and spirit the way we have in the West; laud the Eastern understanding of the sacramentality of all creation; talk about the Theophany and the blessing of all waters; or connect the dots between the Incarnation, icons and the sanctity of all matter. His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is known as the “green” Patriarch for his work advocating for ecological responsibility from a deeply Christian standpoint. 

So where is the book on ecological theology from an Eastern perspective? 

No one has written it. 

There are bits and pieces here and there—articles, chapters, and allusions—but when you go looking for something more, there is, well, not much more. I’m calling the bluff: Given the deep resources within the Orthodox tradition for ecological thinking, I’d like to see someone synthesize all this iconography and liturgy into something more explicit, more direct. Heck, in my library, there are already eight shelves full of eco-conscious Protestants and Catholics selling books on the subject!  

And if you’re willing to take me up on it, would you mind writing this before my term paper is due?

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.

without knowing good and evil :: Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology

Flipping pagesAt long last, I put the final touches (and blows) to the thesis today, and it is ready to be shipped off for grading. Quite a relief to have this monkey off my back and to be on to other projects. Below I’ve posted the abstract to the thesis; if you are interested in a copy of the whole thing then drop me an email.

Knowing the difference between good and evil seems central to any account of ethical thought. Yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that Christian ethics’ “first task” is to supercede this knowledge. Rejecting the knowledge of good and evil, Bonhoeffer regards modern ethics as continuous with Adam and Eve’s illegitimate meal in the garden of Eden. Grasping at wisdom apart from God, the earliest humans brought death and division into the world. Bonhoeffer’s account of Christian ethics is inimical to the self-justification, judgment of others, and autonomous notions of individual freedom that the knowledge of good and evil provides. Human beings employ their knowledge of good and evil in efforts to unify their lives and communities, but Bonhoeffer sees that these actions spring from the divided state of fallen humanity. Yet if Christian ethics really involves “un-knowing” good and evil, on what basis can Christians confront the complex and difficult decisions that they face daily? How are Christians to respond to violence, destruction, and immorality—both in their own lives and in the acts of people around them? How are Christians (and others) to teach their children how to behave without recourse to some conception of good and evil? This thesis explores the knowledge of good and evil in Bonhoeffer’s writings and traces the development of his ethics as an alternative account of moral knowledge. The ethics of the church, in Bonhoeffer’s understanding, is grounded in the knowledge gained through being incorporated into the body of Jesus Christ, through extending his mission, and through proclaiming his gospel.

editing :: to find my true voice

I began laughing when I realized what I was doing, so I thought I’d share the joke.

Because I am at the tail end of my thesis, I’ve been spending a lot of time editing lately. I am finding better ways of saying what I’ve already said and trying to find all the commas that migrate around my papers and plant themselves in the wrong places.

My favored method of editing is to read the paper out loud. I find that when I’m actually speaking the text, it becomes more plainly obvious where and when I’m not making any sense. This means that I spend protracted periods of time sitting in the apartment talking to myself.

The fact that I often slip into a British, or Scottish, Irish or Australian accent while I read to myself is not what got me laughing. I’ve always enjoyed picking up other accents. My folks used to get me to read the “World Briefs” section of the newspaper (that eighth of a page in American newspapers where they tell you about all the unimportant people in the world who don’t speak English) in the accents of all the countries represented. What actually got me laughing was when I realized why I was reading in an accent.

It is well known that North Americans perceive people with Commonwealth accents as being more intelligent than people with plain ol’ ‘merican accents (and some of them actually are!). I realized that I often began slipping into these accents precisely in those sections of the paper where I thought that the argument was getting a bit dodgy or unclear. Some gremlin deep in my subconscious figured that it might sound better if someone British were reading it. Sometimes the trick even works! By distancing myself from my own writing and putting it in someone else’s voice, I don’t have to feel as crummy about the vagueness or tediousness that plagues my writing.

Nothing profound, but perhaps it’s worth a chuckle.