Summary of Scott and Caputo's Spring Meeting Sessions

History or Theology: Must we choose between them?

By Alexis James Waggoner | 5/24/19

In our second set of presentations at Santa Rosa, Brandon Scott and John D. (Jack) Caputo co-presented on the topics of history and theology. Starting off the talk, Jack voiced a concern about separating history and theology from each other. That makes for both bad history and bad theology, for theologically contrived history and historically ignorant theology. The premise is that the one needs the other. Accordingly, he calls the approach he takes “theopoetics”—an understanding that what’s going on in history is theologically interesting in a dramatic sense.

Within this framework, we can understand the “kingdom of God” saying to be imagining what it would be like if God ruled the world not the “powers and principalities.” We can ask, what is going on in in the world in the name of “God”? What does God mean, and does God have to exist in order to “be”? The difference between theology and theopoetics, Jack explained, is that in theology you make claims about God, but in Theopoetics you’re describing the experience of being claimed—something grabs you, not something you have. The stories we read in the Bible are, beyond whatever historical information they provide, ultimately opening up a new world, a new way to be.

What is the Kingdom of God?

Brandon’s portion of the talk focused on “Kingdom of God” language. Where it shows up, and how was (and is) it understood? He contends that Jesus used “Kingdom of God” language because Jesus was reticent to talk directly about God. Jesus had no idea how to do so! Accordingly, there is a lot of indirect talk about God in Jesus sayings, but it mostly focuses on the ethical side of life. Kingdom of God statements are not about who or what God is.

Jesus often used unexpected images when he imagined the Kingdom of God. Jesus used the image of leaven, which was inconsistent with the very notion of holiness. Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God being like the activity of a woman, which was rarely a status symbol in ancient Roman culture. These allusions indirectly re-imagine God as what is corrupt or what is weak, and that’s radical! With Jesus, the Kingdom of God places God on the side of the oppressed and raises the oppressed up to a god-like status. This placement re-imagines both divinity and humanity. This re-imagined God does not make religious sense, but it does make theopoetic sense in that it’s a profoundly different experience of God.

Meanwhile, Brandon pointed out, it’s interesting to note that when there are examples of people pressing Jesus on the idea of the Kingdom of God, he deflects definite statements and starts talking in parables. Brandon indicated that the gospels are second-order reflections on the parables themselves (which in some ways are already second-order reflections on God or the Kingdom of God). The gospel writers often try to defang the position the parables of Jesus take (such as explaining parables allegorically). Jesus was not interested in a theistic definition of God; he was not interested in “theology” as a God question. Rather than divine identity questions, Jesus offers “divine” experiences within the group.

The Weakness of God

One of Jack’s main theological images is the weakness of God. Brandon’s descriptions indicated how this played out in the earliest Christ communities. They experienced God as an overturn of the whole social structure in which they lived. They assumed God was on the side of the oppressed (their side). The tradition, on the other hand, tried to “save” people, to convert them from unclean to clean, and to put God back on the side of wealth. But the original communities imagined God as unclean. This did not make them clean; this made God unclean.

Christian theology got wedded to what Jack calls “strong theology.” With strong theology, you get propositions, arguments, concepts about the being of God (statements about God’s qualities or character). Instead, Jack suggested the idea of weak theology, where instead of thinking of God as a omnipotent Superbeing who rewards his friends and crushes “his” enemies, we think of God as a “call” which calls upon us without force or coercion, and we hold that forgiveness is stronger than the violence of offence, that hospitality is stronger than the forces of hostility. That seems impossible to the “world,” but the “Kingdom of God” is precisely the possibility of that impossibility.

Part II: The Death of Jesus

In the second part of their presentation, Brandon began by highlighting the political nature of the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus did not become political later; it started off that way. To say “Jesus died for our sins” is a way to obscure the political nature of his death and hide the brutality. However, it is necessary to distinguish between what happened in the death of Jesus as a Roman punishment and what the death of Jesus meant to the Gospel writers..

Brandon suggested that Maccabees is the necessary background for understanding the meaning of Jesus’ death as a martyr. These Jewish writings face the problem of the murder of the innocent because of their religious convictions and practices. The martyr dies for the people, not to placate an angry God, but dies faithful to God The Gospel writers very much understand that Jesus died as a martyr. The language used is not death as a ransom or as substitutionary atonement.

Jack in turn highlighted several classical theories of atonement, including what he called the “child abuser” theory (God sent God’s son to suffer and die in order to pay off a debt that God imposed). He pointed to the Christ-the-Victor theory (God turns the tables on the “powers and principalities” But even though that is the view struck in the New Testament, Jesus here is still a substitutionary victim, taking a hit for the rest of us. Jack then endorsed a contemporary approach, which he called the “innocent victim.” Jesus speaks truth to power, and he is taken out by that power. This, Jack explained, is a prophetic death, a death of a martyr, and not a story of divine violence but of God’s solidarity with the victims of violence.

Brandon and Jack asked the question, “What do we do now?” They offered a few suggestions:

  • Allow ourselves to be guided both by the facts and by love
  • Stop thinking that God is going to show up one day: that’s not the power of love but the love of power
  • Put what little we know about the historical Jesus together with the theopoetics of scripture. When we do so, we begin to see that the power of love is about exposing one's self to risk, possible brutality, and even death.

Jack concluded the conversation with a final emphasis on the importance of theopoetics. It is not about “perfect” history or “perfect” theology. It is about the poetic power in love. The true test of power is to understand the paradox love introduces: true power is powerlessness that gives itself for the other.

As Marketing and Digital Education Director, Alexis Waggoner works closely with both Westar’s Marketing Committee and the Executive Director to advance the presence and value of Westar in our culture through social media and the use of digital media in public education. Alexis brings to Westar a unique blend of digital marketing and religious education experience. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. 

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