Thursday, January 14, 2010

Christian Theology: Wickedness

The saga continues...

Having worked with victims of sexual and domestic abuse, Mary Engel has witnessed suffering in its rawest forms. It is from this wounded community that she is "sourced" (D. Williams). Engel proposes a posture towards questions of theodicy that addresses "wickedness," which serves as the catchall term for both corporate evil and individual sinfulness. She initially considers three possible constructive theodical solutions:

1) Sin as distortion of feeling: self-denial, self-blame, moral callousness
2) Sin as betrayal of trust: breaking the sacred bond of trust
3) Sin as lack of care: avoiding responsibility and distorting the self's boundaries

Returning to the crucifixion as the violent slaughter of the God-Made-Vulnerable, Engel arrives at the following working definition: wickedness derives from the "distortion of the dynamic tension between freedom and dependence, or the lack of consent to the dependence and fragility of our lives."

In many ways, I quite like this provisional theological suggestion, as it incorporates both autonomous and systemic factors. I suspect, however, that post-colonial theorists might wrestle with the very concept of consent, which privileges a seemingly Western notion of empowered individual agency.

Either way, Engel is clearly on to something. I was particularly moved and disturbed by the poetic verses that opened her piece. One excerpt reads:

I have been raped
cause I have been wrong.

To me, this points to the most convincing answer to theodical inquiry: we cannot solve the problem of evil unless we learn to live with God in solidarity.

Wickedness is real and belies any totalizing explanation. The most we can hope for is concursus Dei. Or, as Bonhoeffer intuits, "only a suffering God can help."

Amidst suffering, all of creation walks with God in a constant "movement toward metamorphosis" (Song). Between the act of violence ("I have been raped") and the transition to meaning-making ("cause I have been wrong" - admittedly distorted, I might add), God clears space for us just to "be-" - with the smallest (Gutierrez), with the Great Companion (Duraisingh) and with all-else.

Print this post

Christian Theology: The Cross

I continue this series of posts on Christian theological reflection with an entry on the meaning of the cross. Admittedly, these gestures reflect an inchoate effort at translating traditional Christian symbolics into a language more familiar to my Unitarian Universalist parlance. This dialogical engagement is of utmost importance, I believe. Not only does Christian rhetoric claim significant currency in our culture, but the Living Tradition traces its rich heritage in and through Christianity's winding legacy.

As for the cross:

1) The Cross as Exposure: despite the darkness that covered Golgotha (Matthew 27:45), the crucifixion-event served as a form of illumination. In this way, it was God dwelling in the dark clouds (1 Kings 8:12). The cross cast a spotlight back on the world of violence that nailed Jesus to those beams. It exposed the raw hatred, power-fetishes and brutality simmering below the facade of empire. It pierced the Real and, in so doing, demonstrated the contingency of the Symbolic (Zizek) - the radical possibility of egalitarian re-configuration. Rosemary Reuther refers to this process as the unmasking of idols and proclamation of the good news of "abundant life in loving mutuality."

2) The Cross as Verdict: rejecting Jesus' invitation to conversion into solidarity with the downtrodden, the political and religious authorities cast their verdict. The antagonists in this violent drama should not be overlooked. In this way, the oppositional "verdict of the Father" (Barth), as signified by the resurrection, calls those who encounter the living Christ to similarly oppose the politics of empire and dehumanizing orthodoxy of calcified institutional religion in our time. "The cross means human beings rejecting human beings," C.S. Song writes. This is true. But we, as religious enthusiasts with an eye on current events, must not forget that the perpetrators were those alleging political treason and religious blasphemy.

3) The Cross as Mystery: the most haunting scene of the crucifixion narrative undoubtedly centers on Jesus' desperate cry for God's presence amidst isolation and estrangement. This scene tempers the well-intentioned tendency to view the Calvary story as a triumphalist cosmic victory over evil. As Rosemary Reuther intuits, the horizontal evils plaguing human history are often cast aside amidst enthusiastic fervor surrounding the vertical action of the "god-man" satisfying God's supposed wrath. We cannot succumb to this interpretive temptation. Rather, the disturbing absence of God during periods of the crucifixion-event testifies to God's mysterious and unknowable nature. On the one hand, "God means to put an end to all the crosses of history" (Boff). On the other, we must neither romanticize suffering nor arrogantly claim secret insight into God's will. At the end of the day, "God cannot be owned" (Countryman).

Print this post

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Christian Theology: The Human

I offer some cursory reflections that bubbled up from the Christian theology course I am currently taking at EDS:

Lactantius once wrote: “since humanity is the image of God…the strongest bond which unites us is humanity.” This perspective tempers, I believe, the misreading of stewardship in terms of exploitation. Rather, redemption involves bringing the image of God to its fulfillment despite the reality of sin - and doing so together.

On questions of theodicy, I am inclined to preference the analogy of sin as a power which holds us captive (much like evil in Greek tragic theater) over and against viewing sin as a hereditary disease or guilt passed down from generation to generation. In this way, I am skeptical of Pelagius’ overly generous faith in humanity’s good works, while similarly cautious not to allow the human mind to crumble under the weight of Augustinian pessimism. Here, I appreciate Delores Williams’ characterization of sin as estrangement from the source of one’s Being, which in the womanist context maps onto a loss of identity and, by extension, connection. Tying the notions of imago Dei and sin together, I arrive at Migliore’s stopgap: “Being created in the image of God is not a state or condition but a movement with a goal.”

It is through grace, then, that we hold fast to, and walk with God (concursus Dei) towards, the promise of pleroma – sharing in the fullness of God’s life in community, in restored and faithful relationship, with oneself, with others, with nature and God. Or, as C.S. Song puts it, “Our world expands!”

Print this post