Friday, April 30, 2004

a proposal

thank you all for the comments on the article I posted. a couple of important questions has been raised that I intend to address, and one that I want all of us to address.

the questions raised from my article are:

1) How does the particularity of Jesus 'break out' of the capitalist ideology (the Real of Capitalism)?
2) Where does the Church fit along the particular-universal line?
3) What is Love, and why does it 'break out' of capitalism?

and the question I want to raise for all of us is:
How does the Church break out of capitalism, or capitalist ideology?

I propose that you all write an answer (or on the way to an answer) on our various blogs (and then leave a comment here so we know). And if you have written previously on this topic, maybe you can re-post your entry of link it. And for those without a blog, just email it to me and i'll post it...

maybe this could be the first joint project [grid blog] of the "sjlbvdnzv school of graduate studies"? [see side bar there...and anglo-baptist: spread the word!]

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

A Revolutionary Community :: Repositioning Justification by Faith

I would really like some feedback about his article that I've written. It concerns a recent Marxist re-appropriation of Christian and how it might help us remember lost aspects of Christian theology, particularly the political aspects of "justification by faith." This article fits in as a small book review of Slavoj Zizek’s "The Fragile Absolute" and its correlation to Luther's view of justification. The New Pantagruel has considered publishing it, and I want to thrown it out here for some helpful comments and critiques, and any lapses in clarity or logic. It's long for a blog post, but short for an essay, about four pages.

A Revolutionary Community :: Repositioning Justification by Faith

In a way similar to the destruction that Pauline Christianity wrought on the Roman Empire, Zizek wants to use a reconfigured Christianity to ease the grip of liberal-capitalist hegemony. "What Christianity did with regard to the Roman Empire, this global 'multiculturalist' polity," he confides, "we should do with regard to today's Empire." (George Mason)


Amidst the onslaught of New Age spirituality and a surfacing religious awareness within philosophic deconstructionism, what is a poor 'dialectic materialist to do? When Capitalism is taken for granted as a force of nature, where might an ailing Marxism find support? For Slavoj Zizek, shelter is found under the wings of an unlikely source. Zizek sees the most important repositioning in these 'postmodern times' lying in a reconciliation of Christianity and Marxism. In The Fragile Absolute Zizek attempts to appropriate the subversive core of the Christian legacy as a means of breaking out of the logic of Capitalism: the desire of "unbridled productivity" and "unbridled consumption". Given the historically apolitical (and/or apathetic) standpoint of the Western church, Zizek's view of Christianity as a politically revolutionary approach is particularly surprising.

Zizek's Revolutionary Community

According to Zizek, Marx was not radical enough in his break from capitalism because he assumed, along with capitalism, the goal of "unbridled productivity." "Socialism failed because it was ultimately a subspecies of capitalism, an ideological attempt to 'have one's cake and eat it', to break out of capitalism while retaining its key ingredient." So the criticism that Marxian Communism is an impossible fantasy is correct. Zizek explains that Communism/Socialism is the utopian dream, or fantasy of Capitalism, the desire of limitless productivity, which is consumed by limitless desire. According to Zizek, Marx's mistake was to think the object of desire (unbridled productivity) would remain even when its cause/obstacle (oppressive capitalist social relations) was abolished. However, as actual existing Socialisms reveals, this was not the case. Marx was merely extending Capitalism to its idealized form rather than escaping its logic.

Through many twists and turns, weaving together Marxism and Lacan psychoanalysis, Zizek points out how the Christian legacy "breaks out" of the vicious cycle of (symbolic) Law and Desire. As he notes, "There is always a gap between the object of desire and its cause, the mediating feature or element that makes this object desirable." This cause/obstacle makes the object desirable, but not in or of itself. If you take away the obstacle then the desire dissipates. Capitalism thrives within the production and maintenance of this cause/obstacle. The Christian legacy escapes this logic not by denying/fulfilling Desire, a Desire caused by the Law, but by means of Love, which unites the object of Desire and its Cause. "In love, the object is not deprived of its cause; it is, rather, that the very distance between object and cause collapses." Love is directed toward the object of desire in and for itself, even in spite of itself. Love desires the object, in a sense, in spite of its lack of desirability; Love loves in spite of what it loves, not because of it. This breaking out of the cycle of Law and Desire begets an alternative community, "un-coupled" from social hierarchy and oppressive relationships. This revolutionary community, not regulated by the Capitalist
production of desire and difference, offers universal humanity to all. This "authentic psychoanalytic and revolutionary political collective" is Zizek's redemption of Christianity.

What is to be done with this suggestion? Do we affirm this appropriation of Christianity as a politics of love beyond desire, or reject it as the hopeless task of joining religion and politics? By means of a detour through "justification by faith" we can evaluate Zizek's proposal and reposition the real "break out" of Christianity.

Luther's Desire and Justification's Degeneration

In his short book, The Justice of God, James Dunn briefly outlines how part of our understanding of "
justification by faith" was obscured during the Reformation, becoming overly individualistic, exceedingly
introspective, and excessively judicial in imagery, thereby losing its communal and relational focus. While
an Augustinian monk, situated within a Roman Catholicism of indulgences and purgatory, Martin Luther's
conscience ached with guilt over his sin before "the justice of God," i.e. that God punishes all
unrighteousness. God, for Luther, was to be feared, not loved. But under a prolonged reading of Romans,
grappling with the strange manner in which Paul refers to "the justice of God" as a means of salvation,
Luther made his critical 'discovery.' Luther realized the decisive (f)act of God is not that He is "Just" (
condemning the wicked), but that He is also "Justifying" (acquitting the wicked). From this emerged his
doctrine of "justification by faith" not by works, along with attendant theories of substitutionary atonement
and imputed righteousness. However, it seems that Luther read much of his own Medieval Roman Catholic
situation into Paul's letters distorting what the Apostle was really saying. He held two faulty assumptions.
Luther assumed Paul had gone through the same agonies of conscience and guilt over sin before a blameless and
just God. Luther also assumed that Judaism, like his own Catholic Church, was a legalistic religion of human
striving, or works righteousness, from which he reasoned that the doctrine of "justification by faith" set
him free from the system of earning God's favor through receiving God's righteousness, i.e. justified by

The problem with this view, as Dunn and many others have recently pointed out, is Paul does not read as if he
is plagued by a guilty conscience, and Judaism does not read much like a works based religion. Paul nowhere
sounds like he has a guilty conscience before God because of his sins. Instead he says he was blameless in
regards to righteousness within the law. Also, the Judaism of Paul’s day, and the one we can read about in
the OT, was based in God's gracious election of Israel, His giving of the Law as a means of a covenant
relationship, and His continued dwelling with Israel even in the midst of their sin. The prophetic recalling
of God's continuing righteous actions toward an unworthy nation bear witness to this. So it seems Luther
retrojected his context back into Paul’s situation distorting his understanding of "justification by faith,"
and turned it into a doctrine concerning personal salvation which then marched toward Enlightenment

Israel's Desire and Law's Degeneration

Luther, however, was not the only one who misunderstood God's purposes concerning salvation. Within Paul's
context, the doctrine of "justification by faith" is not meant to answer the question "how is one saved?" but
rather "who is in the covenant community of God?" As N.T. Wright notes, "The purpose of the covenant was
never simply that the creator wanted to have Israel as a special people, irrespective of the rest of the
world. The covenant was there to deal with the sin, and bring about the salvation, of the world." The point
of the covenant was the restoration of God's righteousness in the world, and the reconstitution of humanity
to its radical potential. However, during Paul’s time, “while Gentiles are discovering covenant membership,
characterized by faith, Israel, clinging to the Torah which defined covenant membership, did not attain to
the Torah. She was determined to have her covenant membership demarcated by works of Torah, that is, by the
things that kept that membership confined to Jews and Jews only, and, as a result, she did not submit to
God's covenant purposes, his righteousness."

Therefore, back to Zizek's point, Israel's vicious cycle of Law and Desire did not deal with sin and guilt as
Luther believed (and as many Protestants still think). The Law was certainly the cause/obstacle which
sustained their Desire, but the object of this Desire was not for what the Law forbade. Rather their object
of Desire was initially God, who gave them the Law. But the (covenant) Law degenerated into the (symbolic)
Law when Israel allowed her Desire for God to collapse into the maintenance of a boundary distinguishing
Israel from the Gentiles, becoming a justification of Jewish nationalism. The maintenance of Law became their
object of desire, which led to their failure to attain the universal purposes of God. The logic of the Law
was inverted from its universal intention, degenerating into a boundary delineating Jewish particularity.

Paul's doctrine of justification

Now continuing again with Luther, for Paul the issue at stake in the doctrine of "justification by faith" is
not one of soteriology (how one might be saved), but mainly of ecclesiology (how we define the covenant
community). As Dunn states, "the Christian doctrine of justification by faith begins as Paul's protest not as
an individual sinner against Jewish legalism, but as a protest on behalf of Gentiles against Jewish
exclusivism." Paul's Damascus road experience was a conversion from a 'zealous' attachment to Israel's
distinctiveness set up according to the Law (as a boundary marker b/w Jew and Gentile, particularly expressed
through circumcision and food laws). Paul was a rigid nationalist who had forgotten that Israel's election
was meant for the benefit of the Gentiles also, not to their exclusion. But through his dramatic encounter
with Jesus, Paul was converted from the particularity of Judaism (a nation), to the particularity of Jesus (a
man) through whom universality was made available.

For Paul, justification by faith was therefore not merely the conviction that sinners cannot rely on their
own merit to earn God’s favor (although Paul would certainly agree with this). Rather, it is the conviction
that God's grace is no longer limited to a particular people (defined as those who follow the Law), but that
God's goodness and mercy are made universal, to all peoples regardless of social hierarchies, through Faith.
Through Christ, all are justified, because God’s grace is not locked into a certain people, but mediated
through a certain person, our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Messiah, Savior.

Christ's Universal Community

This then is the "break out" of Christianity; this is the formation of an alternative community. Beyond the
structural antagonisms, differences, and desires of consumer Capitalism which splinters race/class/gender,
the universality of humankind is offered in the community gathered around the particular man, Jesus. It is
through faith in this work of Jesus that we are un-coupled from social hierarchies, not merely through a Love
beyond Desire. Israel affirmed the universality of God through the particularity of their human community
according to Law. Zizek, denying God, affirms the universality of mankind beyond the Law through Love. But
Christians affirm the universality of mankind through faith in the particularity of God, i.e. the particular
identification of Jesus as divine. This community, uncoupled from social hierarchy and oppressive
relationship, is based in Christ, through whom the law of sin and death (desire and difference) has been
destroyed, through whom all antagonistic relationships have been subverted, and true humanity is offered

Or to put it differently, only through an individual can individualism be subverted (that menace of
modernity); only through the particular man can we enter a community beyond the particular differences of
mankind. If Luther is a type of consumer individualism, and the Judaism of Paul’s day a type of global/
tribal sectarianism, then the community of Christ breaks out of both, fusing the particularity of the man
Jesus with the universality of God’s grace to all humanity. Christ is the only basis for a revolutionary
politics beyond the Capitalist production of desire. He is the only basis of an alternative politic which can
“ease the grip of the liberal-capitalist hegemony."

Monday, April 26, 2004

people and links: this weekend I was in Grand Rapids visiting my wife's family. While there I was able to have breakfast with James K.A. Smith who teaches at Calvin College and recently published a book (Speech and Theology) with Radical Orthodoxy. I first heard about him through his article at the ooze concerning the ecomonics of the emerging church. I had a great time with him discussing the Emerging Church, Radical Orthodoxy, and the relation of both. also, he has started blogging and I think you all should know about it, so check it out here.

also, postmodern culture has come out with a new issue. I recommend looking though it (and past issues). In particular there is a review of slavoj zizek's newest book which investigates the relation of "dialectic materialism" and "theology" toward a critique of "deconstructionism." Zizek is basically saying that Deconstruction is simply the lastest liberal/capitalist ideology.

anyway, (thanks to stephen long) i've been reading through Zizek trying to figure out his relation to Christianity, and what we can learn from him, and this book is next. but I'll write more about my interest in Zizek soon.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Community: beyond a western/pomo justification

now that title might sound a bit pretension, but here's the scoop. As many of you know i've been trying to read beyond my white evangelical theology which currently is leading me through Hispanic America theologians. and here is one of my observations.

To put it simply, for postmodern westerners longing for a return to community the prime source is the inner life of the Trinity. I.e. the foundation of community is from above, springing from the tri-personal life of the Trinity. (You can see this at perichoresis and a recent discussion led by Stanely Grenz which i was part of).

Now from the hispanic american perspective i've noticed that the foundation for community is not the Trinity, but rather Christology (the practices of Jesus which affirm universal humanity). This is community from below.

Now of course these aren't exclusive consideration or opposing perspective. But I do think it is interesting that white/pomo types look at the Trinity from the perspective of how it might inform their interpersonal/spiritual relationships, as means for moving beyond individualism, while the Hispanic thinkers look at the Trinity from the perspective of its socio-economic consequences (i.e how does power/love/sharing

so my question is, while trying to reclaim a communitarian theology through a retrieval of Trinitarian theology, are pomo westerners merely still perpetuating an apolitical "community" which continues to neglect the concerns of true community?

Monday, April 19, 2004

solidarity with Latin America

many of you have probably already seen robyn's recent posts on latin america martyrs, but if you haven't please do check them out. In postmodern theory, the is much talk about listening to marginal voices, and the discourses of the oppresses, so talk the time. They are a stunning portrayal of what God is doing outside of the American Empire. There are some long posts, but well worth the read.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Daily Life and the Eucharist

Daily Life and the Eucharist--So, how does this relate to the proverbial person in the pew? What difference does this have to do with our daily lives?

first off, the reason why Milbank's proposal is appealing to me is that it sees the different images of atonement (ranson, sacrifice, victory) as linguistic metaphors rather than literal statements of Christ's atonement. "Theories" of the atonement spring from taking one of these metaphors literally to the exclusion of the rest. I'm tired of all these theories of atonement. Where are the theories of reconciliation, or adoption? For this is where the gospel is headed...(interestingly, Milbank's latest book is called "Being Reconciled" so maybe he feels the same).

Second, all Christian action (practical daily living) needs a frame of reference to give it meaning. But every action is preceeded by a "structuring of the world", a defining of reality, which makes our actions meaningful. In this way the symbolic act of framing the world is before the physical act in the world. Our exchanging the sign of Forgiveness (which unites us to the person of Forgiveness) frames the world of all our action. The moment of language is before reality; the imagination before the action. (in this way we see how the Eucharist is more than mere rememberance, nor a spiritual feeling, although I would still want to affirm the significance of both).

third, eucharist as sign which doesn't shift, sign of the same rather than perpetual difference and change. In a society of planned obselescence, consumer fickleness, and political double-speak, the Eucharist continues to signify the same, unchanging event, centering our reality.

lastly, in an age where we have left an understanding of the both "use-value" (the function of an object) and "exchange-value" (what we can buy/sell an object for)[Marx], and entered an age of "sign-value"[Baudrillard] where an object merely signifies something else, or something we aspire to (i.e. wealth, status, cultural sub-group identity; think of name brands and what they signifies. Thinking the Eucharist as linguistic sign allows it to enter into this dialogue and transform it, uniting use-, exchange-, sign-values b/c the element function as natural sustinance for the body, represents the exchange from death to life in Christ body, and is naturally a sign which we pass signifying the reality we aspire to.

The second and fourth aspects I think hold the most promise for connecting daily life with the Eucharistic practice. However, there is much more thinking that we all need to do on this.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

recent changes

i've just changed/added some links to my side bar as well as adding the books i'm going through. check it out.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Eucharist as sign and practice

In my last post several tension where pointed out b/w the political and the cultic reading of Jesus in the Gospels. The first is that each doesn't need the other to make sense. The second is that the political makes Jesus a repeatable model while the cultic makes Jesus a non-repeatable, "once and for all" representative/substitute. The third is that the political places Jesus within established practices while the cultic makes Jesus the founder of those practices. But as I said, Milbank argues that these tensions only occur when we look at the political/cultic, with attending Christologies and Atonement theories, separated from ecclesiology which in a sense arrives with Jesus, not after.

Now the tension we should focus on in relation to the Eucharist is the one b/w Jesus as either the repeatable example, or the "once and for all" substitute. For either we enter into the practice of Jesus, repeating and extending his politics of forgiveness/atonement, accomplishing the work Jesus began (which is the liberal perspective), or we affirm the finality of Jesus' atonement, a "once and for all" act of substitution to which we can add nothing, and therefore cannot repeat (the conservative perspective).

Milbank's proposal simultaneously affirms both perpsective, noting that the Eucharist also affirms both. To begin with the "once and for all" nature of Jesus' atonement slides into the realm of language. As Milbank says, Jesus is our "substitute", "representative" on the cross precisely b/c "he becomes totally a sign,... transformed into a perfect metaphor of forgiveness. Only because of Thursday's symbolic act of kenosis into a world of signs without power, is Jesus able on Friday to activate this sign in his body...This means that metaphors of atonement--'ransom', 'sacrifice', 'victory'--are not to be taken realistically, as approximations to an 'atonement in itself', an invisible eternal transction happening between God and humanity. Instead, these metaphors represent the actual happening of atonement as a meaning in language." So, in this linguistic perpsective, in the Eucharist we are exchanging the 'sign' of Jesus body which stands in for us as the "once and for all" substitute for us (and signs in language are meant to substitute/represent what is not immediately present). This is Milbank's reconfiguration of the cultic.

But in relation to the political he says, "If Jesus' death is efficacious, not just as the offering of an enabling sign, but also as a meterial reality, then this is because it is the inauguration of the 'political' practice of forgiveness...This practice (of forgiveness) is itself continuing atonement." And if this is right, then "it follows that for atonement to be materilly efficacious it cannot be "once and for all", like the sign or metaphor of atonement, but must be continuously renewed." From this he concludes that the Church is both the "transmission of the signs of atonement, and the repetition of the atoning practices."

And to bring be to where I wanted to go with this, Milbank says the Eucharist is both of these aspects at once. In the Eucharist we are exchanging the sign of Christ body and blood which signifies the accomplished act of atonement on our behalf. The cultic sacrifice has been accomplished. But also, in the elements which represent the Body of Chirst, we find ourselves represented as his Body the Church, not separate from him, and therefore enter into his work of atonement, repeating it weekly (or monthly) hoping to find the strength to repeat his work of forgiveness at every moment. (in a sense we are offering ourselves as sacrifices throught the elements, this is Augustine's view which I mentioned in the Three Bodies post.) For only through our repetition of Jesus atonement can that atonement becomes a material reality here and now.

So in summary (well, all this has been summary, and a not too cojent one) in the Eucharist we appropriate the "once and for all" nature of Jesus' atonement through exchanging the sign of his Body and Blood, and we enter into his repeatable example through his Body and Blood.

While Milbank's presentation might not be convincing at all points, his linguistic approach to the Eucharist is very interesting, as well as his linking of the cultic and political. (but i'm not sure i've address some of the question for the last post, sorry.) Later I'll reflect on the practical significance for all this, how it relates to people in my congregation. what do you all think?

Monday, April 12, 2004

political/cultic Jesus and the Eucharist

this post accomplanies my "three bodies of Christ" as I'm exploring my sacramental theology (w/ echos back to the worship/community/individual discussion). This will be in two parts: the first an outline of tensions; the second the Eucharistic resolution.

When we come to the gospels two reading of jesus emerge, the political and the cultic. And when taking the cultic route we generally presuppose Christological and Atonement doctrines. When coming from these two perspectives several tensions emerge.First, the political (his teachings/practice) doesn't need the cultic (sacrificial death); and the cultic (bloody atonement) doesn't really to be supplemented by the political. Second, the political reading makes Jesus an example, a model, a repeatable figure who we follow (continuity); but the cultic reading makes Jesus the represetative, substitute, non-repeatable second Adam (discontinuity). Third, the political reading see Jesus as entering into established practices of love, justice, and forgiveness such that he is merely an instantiation of the universal standard; while the cultic reading sees Jesus as the founder, establisher of these practices of love, justice, forgivenss. But these tensions only occur when we look at the political/cultic, with attending Christologies and Atonement theories, separated from ecclesiology.

In his essay "The Name of Jesus" (in The Word Made Strange), which I have been summarizing above, John Milbank seeks to move beyond a merely political (liberal) and cultic (conservative) reading of the gospels, while still upholding the a type of high Chistology and Atonement. His basic premise is that "Christological and Atonement doctrines...are theoretically secondary to definitions of the character of the new universal community or Church." These doctrines are the end of an argument concerning the nature of the church, and what happen through Jesus.

He says, "The gospels can be read, not as the story of Jesus, but as the story of the (re)foundation of a new city, a new kind of human community," and we must therefore make an ecclesiological deduction of the incarnation and the atonment. In a sense, Jesus arrives with the Church. Jesus is presented as the founder (beginning) and the culmination (end) of the new community. He is both the seed and the tree; the foundation and the temple; the cornerstone and the capstone; the head and the body.

When we focus on Milbank's ecclesial deduction of the atonement we can see how he links together the politic and cultic and how it bears on our understanding of the Eucharist. As we will see, the Cross and the Eucharist represent and inaugarate both a new meaning in language (the passing of signs) and a new political practices.

but enough for today. sorry its so heady.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Lines of convergence: global-urban-postmodern

The Ooze has graciously published a short article of mine called "Lines of Convergence: global-urban-postmodern" where I explore the interaction of the emerging church with urban and global issues. I throw out a bunch of ideas and concern and I would love to hear what you all think.

Please interact with the article here b/c there is no comment section at the ooze.

I'll begin posting again after Easter.