The Seminar on God and the Human Future gathered on March 21, 2015, at the Spring national meeting to launch a five-year project on what we mean by a little word with big consequences: God. When Westerners speak of God, they can mean many things: Supreme Being, First Cause, Creator, Lawgiver, the source of all that exists, the energy or force that pulses through all reality, the “ground” of being, the All. We speak sometimes, too, of a “God of the gaps,” of that which surpasses human understanding. Rilke called God “the primordial tower,” which we circle without ever figuring out who or what we are.
Radical theologian John D. Caputo, whose work was celebrated by the Seminar, asked attendees to consider a new way of thinking about God: a weak but potent God, God as “the great perhaps.” As Caputo explained, this approach to theology comes in the wake of work done by twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich:
It is Tillich who initiated, at least in the most decisive way in the twentieth century, the critique of supernaturalism and the attempt to understand religion in the mode of what Heidegger described as “being in the world” … a mode which taps into the depths of mundane life.
Joseph Bessler of Phillips Theological Seminar, in his paper “Moving Words,” contrasted Tillich with his contemporary Karl Barth, who “sought in the face of World War I to draw theology back from public discourse and to protect it from the gross failures of modernity.” Tillich’s willingness to put theology out into the public sphere, as a public art, may be his best legacy. It is in that spirit that the God Seminar has issued a call for participants who are willing to engage with this and other meaningful theological questions in a very public way.
God as an absolute Being diminishes God in a way by revealing the human need for stability. A mighty, unchanging God is safe. Such a God can be made to stand for whatever aspects of life we find comforting and would rather not give up. Other kingdoms may falter, but surely a kingdom “of God” is stable. A kingdom sounds grand and certain, so we settle into complacency about it. Of course it will come. God is in control. Yet the Kingdom of God in practice is not certain at all. We’re continually pulled from the false stability of where we are now toward a vision that is not yet real. This vision is attainable in the sense that we can always move closer to it and yet it is never quite done in the sense of arriving in paradise. Consider French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s notion of justice: “The law can strong-arm us, but justice calls.”
Law—of the sort that takes you down to the courthouse—is not justice. There’s a weakness to justice, weakness in the sense that there is no safe or predictable structure handed down from a king or even the cosmos to us that says, “This is justice. Do it exactly like this and you’ll be fine,” or “This is the law. The law is always just, so you can trust it.” Sometimes human law fails to meet the higher value of justice. Likewise, sometimes human claims about God fail to meet the higher value or concept of God.
The temptation in a conversation like this is to jump to a familiar escape route: “Of course human beings can’t understand God. God is bigger than any human thought. We can only do ‘negative’ theology by talking about what God is not.” But Caputo is not claiming God is a Supreme Being, a higher entity, or even the “ground” of being. He’s not asking us to imagine a particular being in the sense of a potentially physical entity that exists. Instead we are invited to consider God as weak in the same sense as the weak force of justice. Sarah Morice Brubaker, a Phillips Theological Seminary professor and writer for Religion Dispatches, put it like this:
There’s a really big difference between talking about the weakness of God and really following that through [as Caputo has done], versus simply saying, “Well, God isn’t vulnerable to the constraints of being. God doesn’t show up within beings’ terms. That was fascinating to me reading [The Weakness of God] because there are many similarities between the two approaches notwithstanding that huge difference. I was thinking of Jean-Luc Marion, a very theologically inflected French Catholic philosopher who wrote, among other things, God without Being. The God you get there is not a vulnerable God. It’s a God who is so invulnerable even being can’t contain him—and I agree it’s a ‘him’ in this case. This is a God who no matter what you bring at him, can say, ‘Whoa, step off, back off. That’s nothing. I can bust those categories without breaking a sweat.’ … It’s kind of a rescue mission [to prove God’s invulnerability].
How is Caputo’s view different from this absolutely powerful God of Marion? Answering that question requires us to let the idea of God get a little messier (with the promise that it straightens itself back out as we go). We do this by “deconstructing” the concept of God.
Deconstruction simply means interrogating the concepts handed down to us by our communities and traditions for the sake of understanding those inherited concepts more deeply and even in a new way. When you deconstruct something, you destroy the concept in the sense of picking it apart, but then you rebuild it with a better understanding of the full range of its meaning—why people care about it and appeal to it in everyday life. You purposefully play with the language to see what it’s all about, in the same way you played with objects as a child both to understand the world better and to understand your own power to manipulate objects into tools that may help you or hurt you. There are no guarantees when you do this that you’ll retrieve either the language or the object in the exact form in which you received it. Deconstruction does involve risk. In this case, we’re willing to take that risk because the value of God is up for question in our modern, increasingly scientific and technological and nevertheless earth-bound community. What sort of God—if any God at all—makes sense in this world?
The point here isn’t to dismiss or downplay the importance of whatever you are deconstructing. It’s deadly serious business. We should avoid what Caputo and others semi-jokingly described as “postmodernism-lite,” that is, deconstruction used as an apologetic tool that pulls apart human stories of reality in a materialistic, reductionistic way of saying, “See, if you interrogate an idea far enough down, there will be nothing at the bottom.” Why are we deconstructing the human story or idea of God? What are we deconstructing God in the name of? We must not forget why we employed the method in the first place.
We’re deconstructing in the name of a value, and the one I most often heard named during the God Seminar discussions was justice. Justice is not served by understanding God as some outside being that lays down absolute law, who “balances the scales” in the end. We know that because, to give just one example, we can’t forgive our enemies on the principle that we expect God to hurt them later, what Bernard Brandon Scott of Phillips Theological Seminary (emeritus) referred to as the “myth of revenge.” Forgiveness in the radical sense of the word comes without such a condition even on the metaphysical level. When the apostle Paul said the weakness of God trumps the strength of the world, he surely didn’t mean to imply that was because God has the bigger bludgeon. “Faith, hope, and love are the virtues of the unhinged,” Caputo warned. Before that: “In the name of God, something gets itself said and done.” God is a call, an allure, a threat, and not necessarily human in the sense of active agency. Westar Fellow Susan (Elli) Elliott, in unpacking this example of forgiveness, compared the identification of a people by a shared story over against identification of a people by shared landscape. One sees in her example how the land itself shapes and suggests the work of the future, not by wielding a kingly power to bring it about but because it is the horizon presented to us by our own past:
We’ve talked [in the Big Sky region] about the difference between the metanarrative that comes from Europe primarily, that has been successfully imposed upon this hemisphere and on our territory. There’s a huge difference between grounding in a place in the earth and grounding in a metanarrative that’s alien, fundamentally alien to the place. When we think about forgiveness, when we look at the layers of what has happened to our places … of the removal of native plants and replacement with agriculture and mining, change[s] … that are unforgiving, [we might ask] what it means to turn to the landscape in which we dwell for our collective memory.
Forgiveness, in this sense, comes about not because God is a supreme bully who’ll whack you if you put your toe over the line but because forgiveness opens up a new possibility for moving forward. Nothing can take away the fact that human actions have changed the land under our feet. Will we take a risk that changes that trajectory? Sometimes you have to take a chance on a world-changing event.
“You’re talking about the fact that God, theology, event, are verbs and not nouns,” observed Lane McGaughy of Willamette University. “The assumption that is built into Latinate languages is that naming came first … but really language starts with verbs, that is, calling things, not naming things. … I hear naming as a way of pinning things down, that, as it were, fossilizes or sediments them.” Event understood as a verb is messianic, always something coming in the midst of the relatively stable structures—social, legal, theological, and so on—by which we live our lives. That relative stability is important, but sometimes a single act can change everything. All of this should be very familiar: the Bible is one story after another of this kind of experience. God is the warning that the event is possible, never here but always calling. As the German philosopher Heidegger warned in Being and Time about the project of being, when you arrive, you’re dead; to complete the circle, to reach paradise, is to cease to exist at all. Caputo sums it up: “Paradise is the death of hope.”
What sort of theology is implied by this idea of God? What is the work of theologians who accept this idea of God? Jeffrey W. Robbins of Lebanon Valley College recommended two books by Caputo for members of the public who are interested in pursuing this further. The first is On Religion: “Who do I love or what do I love when I love my God?” The other is What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, a reclamation of Sheldon’s novel In His Steps from the evangelical cultural “machine” to remind readers of the concern for social justice that underpinned the question, “What would Jesus do?” In fact we are living in an era in which the lines between philosophy and theology are not nearly so neat as they have appeared in past eras, especially since Heidegger famously described theology as a closed circle and philosophy as an open one. Robbins explains:
People are rethinking the conditions of possibility for philosophical theology. … If radical theology happens in confessional theology whenever confessional theologians get themselves in trouble, because they’ve thought themselves to the limit and all of a sudden stumbled upon something that religious authorities perhaps are uncomfortable with, the same phenomenon happens within philosophical circles. Throughout especially twentieth-century continental thought, what you have is philosophers thinking themselves to the limit of what philosophy allows, and interestingly once they think themselves to the limit of what philosophy allows, all of a sudden they stumble upon God—or they stumble upon, not God as some kind of entity, some hyper-being, but they stumble upon religion. How do you talk about that which is beyond your ability to talk about, your ability to conceive? Philosophy thinks itself to its limit and becomes theological … All the while, Martin Heidegger tells us that never the two should meet. What we’re seeing is the two bleeding into one another.
The Seminar concluded its sessions with a vote on the statement, “The subject matter of theology is God conceived as a supreme being or highest entity.” The recommendation for the vote was BLACK, which means the seminar committee was urging both professional and public participants to DISAGREE with the statement and open up the question of what the subject matter of theology truly is.
Want to know more? If you found this report interesting, you might like to learn more about the new Westar Seminar on God and the Human Future. You can also browse all the Spring 2015 Meeting reports.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.
"The church as school, Jesus as teacher, and Christianity as lifestyle are all part of taking the historical Jesus to church."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus
Consider this: Suppose you had the opportunity to spend a couple afternoons learning from the historical Jesus and the Buddha. After listening to the lessons they offer, which one would you follow? Jesus likely said things like, "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:27 / Q) and "The empty jar is full because it is empty" (Thom 97:1–4). The Buddha likely said things like "A mind unruffled by the vagaries of fortune, from sorrow freed, from defilements cleansed, from fear liberated—this is the greatest blessing" (Mangala Sutta), and "The root of suffering is attachment" (Sunakkhatta Sutta, Pali canon).
In attempting to grab a couple representative quotes from each, I quickly realized that (1) it's hard to know what quotes are authentic, and (2) it can be hard to decide which quotes best convey each teacher's world-view. By the way, if you think you're on safer ground finding the historical Buddha than with the historical Jesus, think again. Here's one entertaining response to this problem. I've also heard David Galston, whose book we've been discussing the past several weeks on this blog, warn about the problem of the historical Buddha on at least one occasion.
Nevertheless, the quotes above I hope convey that Jesus is most often associated with loving where hate is expected, and giving where greed is expected. In other words, his wisdom turns on irony. The Buddha is most often associated with the problem of attachment to what is temporary/transitory. We suffer because we fixate on what ought to be rather than practicing openness to what a given moment brings.
These are not identical attitudes. They don't necessarily cancel each other out, but they set different priorities. So who would you follow?
We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't be a stranger—share your thoughts below!
Chapter 5 of 9, "Life Practices and Schools in Antiquity," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
« Chapter 4
David Galston suggests we understand the essence of teachings associated with Jesus as a "Trinity of Satire"—paradox, hyperbole, and irony. He gives examples of each, including the two quotes I cited above. An example of hyperbole mixed with a little irony is the parable of the Prodigal Son. In this parable, "the loser is celebrated and the winner feels jealous," Galston explains. "The one with all the power is insecure and cannot let it go to enjoy the moment. The one with nothing is having the time of his life."
If you have 5 minutes to spare, you can watch a video of David telling this parable and interpreting it.
David point out that Jesus' saying, "Love your enemies," is a paradox—an impossible statement. Once you begin to love your enemy, s/he is no longer your enemy. By embracing your enemy, the very idea of enemy becomes empty. Perhaps this was what sparked the philosopher Martin Heidegger to declare in Being and Time that our relationship with others is largely based on a false notion of "the they." He writes,
"We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the great mass as they shrink back; we find 'shocking' what they find shocking. The 'they', which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness." (164, emphasis mine)
In other words, we build up this idea in our heads of who the Other is, and we begin to think that we really understand that other person or other group, that we either are with them or against them. But when we have an authentic encounter with another human being, that whole notion falls apart. They are not the caricature we thought they were. "They" never existed at all. What we have left is another complex human being.
Would You Join the Jesus School of Wisdom?
David poses an interesting question here. If the whole issue of Jesus wasn't about deciding whether or not he is God, but rather, whether or not we would follow his teachings, would we do it? This is the third time I've read David's book. The first time was a couple years ago when it came out, and since then I've undergone some changes in perspective that offered me some surprises when I got to this chapter. I now doubt that Jesus has much meaningful to offer somebody who comes from a strongly agrarian perspective. I no longer believe the Jesus school demonstrates closeness with the land.
This is an important issue to me for two reasons: (1) Just because Jesus may have resisted the Roman Empire, doesn't mean he did so in a way that cultivates a positive relationship with the earth. Those are two separate issues. Jesus may not be a good role model for what to me is our single greatest challenge in modern life: replenishing our damaged earth. (2) Itinerant teachers like Jesus may also not offer good advice for long-term communal life.
If these two values are high on your list, you may need to search elsewhere for a school of wisdom that can provide helpful insights. That's how I felt after reading this chapter.
This claim might need justification. It's true that Jesus uses nature metaphors, but I think he has more in common with people who live in urban settings. Even today, especially today, urban life makes migrants out of us. "Though we fled from distant lands to America, we continue to live much like refugees, never staying long enough to cultivate the richest values possible in a specific place," says Ben Falk in The Resilient Farm and Homestead. "We need the opposite kind of culture, a people that mean to stay" (14)
We already know the Jesus movement involved itinerant teachers who traveled from community to community, dependent on those they met to sustain them. Galston observes the similarity between this practice and that of the Greek Stoics, who likewise lived with little beyond the clothes on their backs. They did this on principle; it was part of the lifestyle of the school. It makes me think of Thoreau at Walden's Pond. I value simplicity to a point, but simplicity is easier for the itinerant than to the person who stays in one place, embedded in a community with all the messiness that entails.
By contrast, agrarian people usually live in multi-generational households in the same basic landscape, and are deeply shaped by that landscape the longer they live on it. This attitude is present in the Bible, mostly in what became the Old Testament. "The very pervasiveness of agrarian thinking in the Bible challenges the common assumption that those who composed or edited the writings were members of an urban elite whose perspectives 'distort or ignore the everyday reality of [villagers'] lives," explains Ellen F. Davis in Scripture, Culture and Agriculture (3).
I am especially taken with Davis' interpretation of the Israelite's exodus from Egypt. She sees the commandments given to the Israelites as a way to separate them from the exploitative practices of Egypt (or, metaphorically, the Israel's ruling class at the time the story was written). "Exploitative agricultural economies were for millenia a fixed feature of various Near Eastern societies," she explains, "including that of Israel and Judah in the period of the divided monarchy" (72). She notes that in this story the Israelites are not allowed to keep the manna overnight. In short, they aren't allowed to stockpile or control the distribution of food.
In complete contrast to agribusiness in both ancient and contemporary cultures, the first story of Israel out of Egypt shows that food is, more than anything else, an expression of God's sovereignty over creation and generosity toward humankind. (73)
I would substitute "God's sovereignty over creation" in this sentence with something about honoring our inability to force life to come into being. Davis is right, I think, to identify the importance of gratitude. In every book I have read, and every interaction I've had with long-time farmers in their least frustrated and anxious moments, gratitude is their highest value. In the words of Rilke:
Though he works and worries, the farmer
never reaches down to where the seed turns
into summer. The earth grants.
In this, I at last find a commonality between the Jesus tradition and the land-based attitude I am currently cultivating in my own life. While I think anybody with commonsense knowledge of nature would disagree with the notion that ravens "neither reap nor sow" (how untrue!), and with the notion that worrying about the future isn't occasionally useful to a cultivator of the land (surely it's helpful to prepare for contingencies!), we can at least agree with Jesus on this: "Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these" (Luke 12:27).
Gratitude—for the earth, for others, and ultimately for our own fleeting lives—is a value I'd like to prioritize. Is that more in keeping with Jesus or the Buddha? I don't know enough about the life of the Buddha, or popular ideas about that life, to comment intelligently on it. However, Jesus' itinerant lifestyle suggests he resisted or was encouraged to abandon the ties to the exact lands and households that once sustained him. To be sure, he may have been forced out by social and personal pressures. I think this may have impoverished the lessons he taught in the particular area we most need wisdom today.
The Prodigal Son is the closest we come to what we need, with a twist: do we have the day-in, day-out staying power of the oldest son? Are we willing to celebrate what we have, including our brother, rather than be celebrated for nothing?
Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓
David, Ellen F. Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Falk, Ben. The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1962 [Original 1927].
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.
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