Theology as Relationship – Take 2

[This post is far less accessible and far more opaque than my previous way of describing theology as relationship. Nevertheless, it is an attempt to put into words some of what leads me to think more and more that theology is relationship, theology is meaningless outside the context of relationship, and relationship is the only context in which theology is capable of truth.]

Here’s the most controversial thing I think I think – relationship comes before individuality. If what I think I think implies what I think it does, nearly every conversation we have about truth and fact is fundamentally flawed. Story and community are more basic realities than fact and fiction. In other words, the relationship(s) in which truth and falsity are possible come before the words to express what may be true or false. If what I think I think is correct, there will be no way to prove it is true because such concepts as truth can only ever be expressed within the contingent words of my own time and place and given understanding and meaning by the relationships that form and are formed by me. When my words are no longer in this time and place, they will no longer mean what they once meant.

To make this claim is not to deny truth and falsity to the world, but to deny the kind of rationality and agency that would be necessary to objectively ground the meaning of words or facts apart from community and relationship. The more important questions to ask are not about truth, falsity, and the possibility of moral action that follows, but about relationship, agency, and both the type of community that created the person capable of speaking and acting in ways that can be evaluated as true or false and moral or not, as well as the type of community that is capable of doing the evaluation.

The fundamental error in epistemological endeavours is the notion that there is an agent to have an epistemology apart from the community that gave the categories of thought and the presuppositions that form the agency of the individual. To assume that we are community before we are individual is to render any epistemological program incoherent to the extent that such a program seeks after an objective grounding that does not rely on a tradition of rationality to arrive at the point where the epistemology makes the sense that it makes.

Assent to this argument does not render “truth” or “meaning” relativistic in such a way that we can pretend that there is no ‘real’ world outside the mind of a thinking agent. The point is, rather, that whatever truth or reality there is to the world, our experience, understanding, and explanation of it come to us through the traditions that have been passed along and are shaped by us as we pass it along to the next generation. To make this claim is to argue that an accessible, objective, and eternal rationality is an incoherent notion altogether. In aiming for rationality or truthfulness, the best we can knowingly attain is coherence and consistency within the stories and communities that we have accepted, rejected, and transformed. In other words, that truth is only possible in the context of relationship is not a bug, it’s a feature.

I’ll grant, what I think I think is not controversial in the click bait sense, but it is the least coherent claim I can offer into the intellectual world I inhabit. Why all of this matters to me is because of what it says about the enterprise of theology. Theology is literally the God-words that we speak and, by extension, the lens through which we view life and faith. If what I think I think is correct, the distinction between a more ‘academic’ theology and a ‘practical’ or ‘contextual’ or ‘lived’ theology is impossible to make. Such a critique is made plenty from the direction of minority theologians – namely that ‘theology proper’ is no less contextual or specific than ‘liberation’ or ‘womanist’ or whatever other theology one could offer. Theology proper is simply the contextual theology of those in positions of power and authority.

I could not agree more with the notion that ‘theology proper’ is no less contextual, but arguing that ‘proper’ theology is contextual in the current intellectual landscape leaves open the possibility that there is a coherent sense of truth and objectivity toward which each ‘contextual theology’ is pointing that is meaningful apart from the lived relationships through which the words of theology became capable of meaning what they now mean. It is precisely that notion of truth, meaning, or objectivity outside the context of relationship(s) that I am rejecting.

The capacity to speak objective truth is only possible within the communities that give shape to the agent who attempts to offer God-words. Truth and falsity are not impossible in theology, but our relationship with God and one another forms us in such a fundamental way that speaking of any words on a page as true or false apart from the community in which they are offered is an incoherent and impossible project. The act of doing theology is the attempt to express the reality of God in words that are both handed down to us and transformed by us within the context of the multiple, often competing communities that constitute human life.

In the process of creating God-words, we have the potential to name and deepen our relationship with God and one another or to distort and tear those relationships down. True theology deepens relationship. False theology creates brokenness. Or in more traditional terms – love God, love neighbor; on these two commandments hangs everything else.

Rights ARE Responsibilities

The notion of rights as a substantive determination for how a human is to be treated is only effective in so much as those in power recognize their responsibility toward those without power. It is the responsibility to raise up those without power that forms the foundation upon which rights can serve as a meaningful imperative toward action. Responsibility to another is, therefore, more basic than rights. And the reversal of this reality in modern America is in no small part a driving force toward the vapidity of rights as a theory that can be constitutive of decision making.

Rights, seen as basic, are inherently violent because they pit the desert of one human being against that of another and coercion is the only way to resolve an inevitable conflict. Responsibilities, embodied fully, are inherently self sacrificial because they force each person to consider what of their deserts might be outweighed by that which they owe to another. Neither rights nor responsibilities are sufficient to ensure a just society, but the latter can at least give the language to speak of justice in terms that recognize a victory for one as loss for another. Viewed through the lens of rights, a victory may seem to only be the manifestation of a justice that was previously hidden, but already existed and only waited to be found. But that view cannot do anything to address the real feeling of loss for the party responsible for giving up what they believed to be theirs.

For instance, if I own land that is later found to have been stolen by the person from whom I purchased it, it may be that my responsibility is to give the land back to the ‘rightful’ owner, but that doesn’t make the loss of land by me any less significant than the fact that someone else may have the legal right to its ownership. Focusing only on rights implies that my sense of loss is invalid because I never had the right to the land in the first place. Saying I have a responsibility to justice at least gives the framework in which my real sense of loss is given expression and value. Rights are a zero sum game in which one or the other prevails. Responsibilities open the possibility for each participant to submit to the notion that human flourishing is often greater than the sum of its parts.

I believe my deepest qualm with rights as practiced in America is that it now operates from the wrong direction. It is understandable that as a minority group who felt persecuted, the founders of our country would start with what they believed to be their rights in opposition to the forces that held them down. However, now that rights are being discussed and put in place by the majority in power, the problems with rights are exposed. To be consistent with what it meant to claim rights as an oppressed minority, the government now ought to speak from the perspective of our responsibilities to one another. The outcome may be somewhat the same in principle, but the execution, as explored above, makes all the difference if you see rights or responsibilities as the more basic reality. The violence of rights can become problematic, but it is easily suppressed if embodied by one without power; the self sacrifice of responsibility is necessary, but hardly discussed when wielded by those in power.

To be sure, responsibilities can easily become an assertion of power just as problematic as oppositional rights. To assume that those without power need whatever it is that those with power want to give is to do no less violence to human flourishing than to pit the rights of one individual against those of another. I do, however, believe the distinction is worth making because there is, within the language of responsibilities far more so than rights, the possibility of a constructive notion of mutually beneficial community, even when the needs/desires of one member conflict deeply with the needs/desires of another. Perhaps the first responsibility of us all is to take the time and effort to simply listen and deeply hear the stories of the men and women who do not look and think and act like us – especially those with less power and influence than us.

Magical Science

There are two interrelated but equally fascinating points being made in the two quotes below by David Bentley Hart.

  1. Magic and science are both attempts to manipulate the physical world
  2. Modernism takes can as the equivalent of should

Before reading his argument I had never thought too much about whether the former point was a reasonable one to make. We, after all, take magic to be, at its most tame, an illusion meant for entertainment and, at its most dangerous, a way to tap into dark and unseen forces in a supernatural realm. What is most interesting about Hart’s descriptions of magic is the notion that it is actually us, in the modern world, that has invented the supernatural and relegated magic to that realm, whether by minimizing it as mere fanciful tricks or elevating it into a realm in which we who are not magicians have no understanding. Before the modern/empiricist/rationalist mindset took hold, what we call the supernatural was not viewed as different in kind from the material world – the ‘supernatural’ was just as real and a part of reality as the air we breathe or the ground upon which we stand – the distinction was born more out of intuition (something is happening beyond what I can obviously perceive) than logic (a strict categorization into one type as opposed to another).

What made the magical unique was its station as the part of reality that is not seen in everyday experience, but can be manipulated by and as a source of power. (It is, perhaps, telling that the “wise men” who visited Jesus were called Magi in their native tongue – knowledge of the world and the ability to manipulate the unseen forces was a specific kind of wisdom, not a fanciful trick.) How much of modern science is predicated on the obvious perceptions that are available to the naked eye and how much requires understanding power and particles that are hidden until the mysteries of knowledge are unlocked? I would argue almost every useful bit of science and technology relies on at least some part of the natural world that we cannot perceive directly, but can assume exists, is manipulable, and will cause a desired outcome (whether we’re talking microprocessors, radio waves, electricity, etc.).

The part of this view of magic and science that is most terrifying and beneficial to humanity at the same time is that our magic actually works; which is a means of coming to the second point. Can as the equivalent of should is the presupposition of modernity. With no moral tie ins or underlying assumptions, we may be ever increasingly drawn toward the reality that knowledge of the world is power over the world is the highest justification for any act of power. I would argue that our ability to consistently manipulate the physical world requires us to think more, not less, about what we believe life is and where it is headed. Without some form of teleology or purpose, it will increasingly become the case that the power we are able to assert over nature will become its own justification for the assertion of that power, no matter the consequences on nature or others.

I have no idea how much Hart’s argument and historical analysis would hold up to serious scrutiny, but it seems pretty compelling to me that a) viewing the historical church (at least before the 1800s) as supporting magic in opposition to science is a misunderstanding of what science is and how it developed; and b) the humility we should have toward scientific discovery should probably remain greater than the shame we try to put on the men and women who created the world in which our views of science became possible. Who knows what the next generations might discover.

 

“In truth, the rise of modern science and the early modern obsession with sorcery were not merely contemporaneous currents within Western society but were two closely allied manifestations of the development of a new post-Christian sense of human mastery over the world. There is nothing especially outrageous in such a claim. After all, magic is essentially a species of materialism; if it invokes any agencies beyond the visible sphere, they are not supernatural-in the theological sense of “transcendent”-but at most preternatural: they are merely, that is to say, subtler, more potent aspects of the physical cosmos. Hermetic magic and modern science (in its most Baconian form at least) are both concerned with hidden forces within the material order, forces that are largely impersonal and morally neutral, which one can learn to manipulate, and which may be turned to ends fair or foul; both, that is to say, are concerned with domination of the physical cosmos, the instrumental subjection of nature to humanity, and the constant increase of human power. Hence, there was not really any late modern triumph of science over magic, so much as there was a natural dissolution of the latter into the former, as the power of science to accomplish what magic could only adumbrate became progressively more obvious. Or, rather, “magic” and “science” in the modern period are distinguishable only retrospectively, according to relative degrees of efficacy. There never was, however, an antagonism between the two: metaphysically, morally, and conceptually, they belonged to a single continuum.” (from Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart, p. 82)

 

“Even the late medieval and early modern panics over witches did not generally involve actual belief in magic; the fear, rather, was of diabolism, murder, and demonic illusion. It seems perfectly obvious to me, though, that in the post-Christian era something more like real magical thinking has come back into vogue, albeit with a modern inflection. I am not speaking of popular interest in astrology, Wicca, runes, mystical crystals, or any other New Age twaddle of that sort; these things are always with us, in one form or another. I am speaking rather of the way in which, in modern society, technology and science (both practical and theoretical) are often treated as exercises of special knowledge and special power that should be isolated from too confining an association with any of the old habitual pieties regarding human nature or moral truth (these being, after all, mere matters of personal preference). That is, we often approach modern science as if it were magic, with the sort of moral credulity that takes it as given that power is evidence of permissibility. Of course, our magic-unlike that of our ancestors-actually works. But it is no less superstitious of us than it was of them to think that the power to do something is equivalent to the knowledge of what it is one is doing, or of whether one should do it, or of whether there are other, more comprehensive truths to which power ought to be willing to yield primacy. We seem on occasion, at least a good number of us, to have embraced (often with a shocking dogmatism) the sterile superstition that mastery over the hidden causes of things is the whole of truth, while at the same time pursuing that mastery by purely material means. Knowledge as power-unmoored from the rule of love or simply a discipline of prudent moral tentativeness-may be the final truth toward which a post-Christian culture necessarily gravitates.” (from Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart, p. 233)

Why He Wins

Humans are fundamentally storytelling creatures. The stories we tell ourselves deeply shape every bit of our perception of what is happening in the present and what is possible for the future. Story is not different in kind than truth or objectivity; story is the recognition that every word we speak and every concept we are capable of forming only exists to the extent that it is spoken in acceptance or rejection of the forms of thought that have been given to us. The more compelling the story, the more willing we are to give our lives to it. The more coherent the story, the more we are able to find peace through participating in that story.

What marks modern American culture more deeply than any other decision or division or factor is the radical rejection of any story that is not the individual’s own. But without an appreciation for the stories that wrote us, we will never be able to understand who we are or how we have come to be capable of experiencing the stories of others and the effects of those stories upon the self. If we don’t make explicit the story we are writing with our lives and how that story comes out of the stories that write us, we will never become more than the incoherent, fearful, aimless jumbles of anxiety that we are right now.

He wins and will continue to win for as long as he continues to tell a better story than the alternative. Stories based on fear and other-ing touch a deeply human nerve that tells the story of danger in the unknown. Fear is such a primal part of the human experience that its stories can hijack any of us in the blink of an eye. To build a sweeping narrative upon fear at every turn – fear of the other, fear of change, fear of losing influence or wealth, fear of anything or anyone that doesn’t think or talk or act like me – is necessarily going to guide our hearts toward violence.

Facts and figures are powerless in the face of such a compelling story for the storytelling creatures we are. Even the stories of an individual here and there have no power to counteract the primal force of his story of fear. We humans don’t care about whether the facts back up his story. We may think facts matter but emotions respond long before we have the chance to ‘decide’ what we think about the details. We view the world and it’s facts through the dominant story until its foundation is so fundamentally shaken that we have to jump to a new story.

The only way to counteract his story is to find a more compelling story that offers a new foundation. For too long, we have forsaken the art of storytelling because of all the ways it has gone wrong. To begin telling a story that stretches beyond the self is to risk the subjugation of that which makes each of us unique and beautiful – imperialism, colonialism, and racism are deeply problematic stories that have developed precisely out of the desire to tell a communal story. The more common response has been to reject the notion of a communal story altogether. But to reject such a story is to reject the only means we could have of establishing a peace that creates the space for coherence amidst our differences and a sum that is more than its parts.

Until we can offer a more compelling story and an invitation to embody that story together, the primal story of fear will continue to win out. Far too many of us may never outright act in hate, but instead devolve into practical atheism through the refusal to wake up and see the reality our brothers and sisters both face and create. Until a more compelling story is told and invitation given, there will never be anything more than multiple competing interests, vying for authority and influence. Until we learn to take seriously the stories that wrote us and the stories we are trying to write, we will never have the language to even combat, much less defeat, his (or the next) story of fear.

To tell such a story starts with learning the art of listening. Listen to the stories of our neighbors. Listen to the stories of our enemies. Listen to the stories of everyone who is willing to share what is beneath the words of the stories we hide behind. Once we have deeply and truly listened, then we will find the space in which love is possible. Once love is present, we will find the space in which it is possible to name and embrace the story we share. Until we learn to tell that story with our lives and relationships, we are never more than one step removed from fear dictating the story of our lives.

The Limits of External Truth

To speak of Jesus Christ apart from the interrelated web of gospel (the unity of His life – the intention to know what happened), traditioned reasoning (His unity with Israel – the setting to make His life intelligible), and enacted narrative (the implications of His life – the long term intentions to follow Him) presumes the (successful) quest for truthful knowledge about the identity of Jesus Christ can begin somewhere other than the character and work of God; it is to presume there is a neutral ground within the human mind upon which rationality is capable of arriving at the truth about Jesus.

The mind is not, however, a neutral arbiter of factual experiences and propositions that bombard the senses from the world outside. The mind is shaped by the world, both sensually and intellectually, such that matters of fact and fiction can only be expressed in terms of their coherence or incoherence within the present shape of the mind; and not, as supposed by those who seek neutral knowledge about Jesus, by arriving at the correlation between idea or experience and a particular set of eternal truths outside of but accessible to the mind.

To make this statement is not to preclude the existence of external truths, but to assert that the move from flawed understanding to external truth is not within the power of the human mind nor is it contingent upon a succession of finite correctives to human knowledge. The true identity of Jesus Christ can only be grasped within the particular narrative revealed by God and accessible through the power of the Holy Spirit. His identity is, therefore, fundamentally different if not understood in the terms by which God has chosen and continues to choose to reveal Him to the world.

The Salvation Miracle

Whatever ‘I’ am is somehow the portion of life that makes experience of the world unique to one person and not another. Life is the connection between the ‘whatever makes me me and not you’ and the power to change something in the world. If life is ‘will’ (the power to affect some form of change in the world), then death is the cessation of power. And if that is accurate of death, than to die to oneself or sacrifice one’s life for that of another is no less a material, concrete, actual death than anything else; it is perhaps a matter of degree or fullness of that death, but it cannot be relegated to some ‘spiritual’ realm or trivialized as not an actual death.

Miracles (literally, deeds of power) are then also not specialized outside of the realm of possible/material but are the particular acts of will that effect a change only through an assertion of power. To die to oneself and be alive in Christ is for the power you ‘have’ over the world to be controlled by the power of God to effect the salvation of the whole world; again not a ‘spiritual’ death and rebirth but a fundamental shift in whatever it is that makes ‘you’ you. Salvation comes through death because it is the final and complete surrender of all that made ‘me’ me in distinction or conflict with that power which is God’s in the world. Salvation is, then, the quintessential example of a miracle.

 

On Atoms and Demons

When I’m feeling particularly cantankerous and willing to question just about everything we think we know, I wonder if an atom is just a mathematically sophisticated demon. I wonder if the most fundamental ways we think about the world around us are just as wrong now as ever. Perhaps we should wonder if knowledge of atoms will be considered on par with knowledge of demons a thousand years from now. It is true that thinking ‘atomically’ has a greater propensity for achieving precise results, but, to say that there is something more basic than the atom is not all that substantively different from saying that the things which cause illness or delusion are more concrete than demons. Both demons and atoms carry great explanatory power in the minds in which they make sense and I don’t think it’s too crazy to wonder if the distinction between atoms and demons is more in a particular form of precision than in kind. The effort to explain the things people see is present in both, and I wonder if history will look upon us more kindly than we look upon the ‘absurdity’ we find in superstition and myth.