(The) Blaspheming God: 
Deconstructing the Shibboleths of Belief, a Radical Theology Exegesis of Job 42:1-6

Mark Tansey, Doubting Thomas, 1985

Mark Tansey, Doubting Thomas, 1985

Then Job answered the Lord: 

‘I know that you can do all things,

   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 

“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

   things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 

“Hear, and I will speak;

   I will question you, and you declare to me.” 

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

   but now my eye sees you; 

therefore I despise myself,

   and repent in dust and ashes.’ (Job 42:1-6)

The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.’ (Job 2:3)

Introduction

The Book of Job is composed of a wisdom dialogue bracketed by a folk tale that introduces and concludes the book. The folk tale tells of a wager between Satan and God: is Job only righteous because he has received God’s blessing? God allows Satan to kill Job’s children and take his possessions, and destroy his health, barring Satan only from taking Job’s life. The wisdom dialogue then breaks in and relates the conversation Job has with his three friends. After they argue for a few rounds, God breaks into the argument and calls Job into direct dialogue. Job’s final response to God is quoted above. The dialogues end after Job’s dialogue with God, and the folk tale returns to conclude the story, affirming Job’s righteousness, condemning his friends, and restoring to Job health, wealth, and family.

The Book of Job is full of theological problems, which has contributed to its lasting appeal. In this exegesis I focus on the question of “the last word”: what are we to make of this story, what are we to make of God’s declarations from the whirlwind, and what are we to make of Job’s final response in Job 42:1-6? Who has the last word, and what is the last word? To work through this, I first look at how others have tried to make sense of this passage. I then follow Carol Newsom in using the Bakhtinian notions of monologic and dialogic to critique these attempts, and finally offer my own “last word”, requiring a return to a “first word”, found in Job 2:3.

Pious Lies?

With others, John Collins has argued that the central question in Job is that of “why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper”. For Collins, and many others, the main concern is that of justice – God’s justice. Job’s complaints are clearly understood as protests of innocence of wrongdoing, an innocence to which both the narrator (2) and God (3) attest. The main concern in this framework is how to make sense of Job’s suffering in light of God’s justice.

“[Job’s] honesty, however, is not tantamount to wisdom. He has to live with the fact that the universe does not revolve around humanity, let alone around Job. The justice of God, if that be the proper term, cannot be measured by human standards.” (1)

While Collins does not offer a thorough account of how Job’s suffering comports with God’s justice apart from indicating that God’s justice is not focussed on human suffering, Kathryn Schifferdecker lays out an argument based on her understanding of creation in Out of the Whirlwind. She claims that,

“Job’s own world has descended into turmoil or chaos, and he attempts to inflict that chaos on creation itself; first by cursing creation, then by ascribing chaotic tendencies to God. Job’s challenge to God’s order cannot go unanswered. In the divine speeches, the creation is, as it were, re-created. More accurately, God reaffirms the order already established in creation from the beginning, an order Job had tried to negate.” (4)

Schifferdecker frames the question of justice in terms of chaos and order, and insists that despite Job’s experience of chaos, the universe remains a place of order, and that this is the point YHWH  makes in the rebuttal from the whirlwind. The “last word” for Schifferdecker is that the cosmos is not ultimately chaotic, despite her acknowledgment of Job’s personal experience of chaos. So although Job’s world has fallen apart, he should not be misled into believing that the world does not hold together, that God’s creation is not whole.

The notion that an overall order is maintained is challenged by God’s statement in Job 2:3, an admission that God has brought suffering on Job “for no reason.”  Yet Job is not initially aware that his suffering is “for no reason” – thus his insistence that his suffering be explained. Yet right at the beginning of the story, God lets the cat out of the bag, and the reader knows that what Job seeks is not to be found. What are we to make of this disturbing knowledge? Adele Berlin addresses this concern:

“The reader is given knowledge which [Job] does not have – the knowledge that God is testing [him]. Obviously, it would not be a valid test if Job knew about it. The question is: why is the reader told from the outset. The answer is that this allows him [sic] to perceive the events differently from the way that Job does. For Job, the question is: what does God want of me and why is he doing this to me? For the reader, the question is: will Job pass the test? Our knowledge that it is a test lets us accept actions on the part of God that are contrary to our picture of him [sic]. Without this knowledge we would be puzzled and/ or incensed, much as Job is; with this knowledge we accept God’s actions, knowing that he [sic] does not really intend for them to be carried out.” (5)

For Berlin, being “let in” on God’s dirty little secret is what allows us to accept God’s abuse of Job. The knowledge that God is testing Job allows us to accept the injustice of Job’s suffering. There is a reason, after all: to prove that Job will be righteous “for no reason,” he has to suffer “for no reason.”  As James Crenshaw notes:
“God reminded the Adversary that Job has held securely to his integrity, “although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” This allusion to the absence of any reason for destroying Job’s “hedge” recalls the Adversary’s initial question, “Does Job fear God for nought [that is, without cause]?” and amounts to a triumphant shout.” (6)

Apparently, if we follow Berlin, the knowledge of what God is up to allows us to set aside our obvious concerns about God’s allowance of Job’s unmerited suffering. I cannot make sense of Berlin’s claim that God “does not really intend for them to be carried out.” In the narrative, Job’s suffering is linked directly to God’s releasing Satan to do his worst. God does intend Job’s suffering, quite explicitly. Being let in on the secret does not relieve us of the problems this presents.

Throughout his encounter with his friends, Job has pleaded his innocence. When God responds as the voice in the whirlwind, no mention is made of Job’s actions: he is neither condemned nor vindicated. Instead, Job is confronted with the “seemingly magnificent irrelevance of much of the content of the divine speeches,” (7) as God demonstrates his might and challenges Job to respond in kind (although God does not respond to Job in kind).

And yet, after this massive display that consistently ignores Job’s pleas, Job responds in 42:1-6  with claims of ignorance and acts of repentance. Crenshaw asks,
“Earlier, he had spoken things which he did not fully understand, for which Job despises himself and repents in dust and ashes. No reading of this final speech by Job removes the perplexing features nor explains why he feels obliged to repent over incomplete knowledge. Where has Job’s integrity gone?” (8)

Also complicating our understanding of the close of the story is the restoration of Job’s health, wealth, and family following this act of repentance. As Martin Pope notes, “the Epilogue upholds the discredited doctrine of exact retribution.”(9)

These “explanations” seem wanting: framing the concerns of Job in terms of justice has led to Schifferdecker’s claim that there is (non-obvious) order despite (obvious) chaos, and that our concern should be with the former rather than the latter. Whereas Schifferdecker seems to ignore the plain claim that God has acted without reason, Berlin takes this acknowledgement as reassuring, yet she does not make clear how our knowledge of God’s secret sheds light on Job’s actual suffering in ignorance. And Crenshaw seems to join the friends in turning on Job and accusing him of abandoning his integrity!

What are we to make of these approaches? The key, I believe, is to turn to Collins’ other insight:  “[Job’s] near-blasphemous candor is preferred to the piety of those who would lie for God.”(10)  And yet even near-blasphemy may not be nearly enough.

Job the Blasphemer?

Job is affirmed time and again as a righteous man who tells the truth. Throughout his dialogue with his friends, he expresses his outrage at his unmerited suffering. He bears no false witness against God – God has indeed allowed Job’s suffering to happen apart from any act of Job’s. In fact, it is precisely Job’s righteousness that has made him a target – in a sense, it is his righteousness that has caused his suffering. He has earned his punishment by living a righteous life.

It is Job’s righteous, honest protest that moves God to speak. As Catherine Keller writes,

“It is to Job’s angry uncertainty rather than to the pious shibboleths of his counselors, that YHWH responds. For all his wounded rage, Job is honored with the single largest divine speech in the Bible. … The drama of Job stages a shocking theological honesty: here is a truthfulness deconstructing the shibboleths of belief.” (11)

Job has held steadfast to his search for the truth, whereas his friends have lied, as Collins observes, to protect their (beliefs about) God. This is crucial: God responds not to Job’s questions themselves, but to Job’s honesty, to his willingness to interrogate his (beliefs about) God.

In responding from the whirlwind, God reveals that although he is pursuing the truth, Job has accepted a framework that is at odds with the truth. Job has been right to ask questions, but he has been demanding answers of the wrong person.

“The whirling wisdom takes no responsibility for the ills that befell Job. … Job presumes belief in a heavenly Sovereignty using the catastrophes of history and nature to punish the wicked. The divine mystery revealed in the whirlwind, in other words, seems to have nothing to do with [Job’s] anthropomorphic and anthropocentric projections. … [T]he divine voice claims responsibility for the broad sweep of the universe … but not for any specific events in the lives of people.” (12)

Job and his friends share the same theological framework: this frame remains unquestioned by Job.  God’s disruptive/disjunctive response rejects this framework. Seeking a “God’s-eye” perspective will not do. If Job is to grow in wisdom, it will not come in the form of divine revelation.

To understand the shift in framework, it is helpful to employ Bakhtin’s notions of monologic and dialogic, which Carol Newsom has applied to the Joban narrative. (13)

Monologic approaches truth as a unified system, and treats an author as the “ultimate voice” who determines the “message” of a story. (14) Monologic takes the form of propositional truth. Monologic assumes that truth is straight-forward and can be mastered/understood by the individual in a finalized form.

In contrast, dialogic truth emerges “at the point of intersection of several unmerged voices”, in conversation – a conversation that can’t be “summed up” into a monologue. Dialogic truth is embodied, personal, and “persons, not propositions, are the participants”. Dialogic truth has unity, but it is the “unity not of a system but of an event”: it is unfinalizable. “In a dialogic text, the author gives up control – and the author’s voice is just one voice, not the ‘real’ voice. And in a dialogical story, the most difficult task is the (unfinalizable) ending!” (15) Dialogic speaks of that about which we can say nothing (final), and yet about which we must (finally) speak.

Newsom quotes Bakhtin:

“Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth.” (16)

So the Book of Job presents us with the form, if not the content, of truth. Dialogue is how truth that is uncontainable by the individual must be pursued. In dialogue, new possibilities emerge, assumptions are revealed and challenged, and truth can begin to emerge between individuals.

Yet Newsom is emphatic that dialogue is not to be confused with dialectic, because dialectic (and here she seems to be thinking in Hegelian terms) arrives at synthesis, an essentially monological resolution. I agree with this concern, although I believe Job can be faithfully read from a Left Hegelian perspective where the antagonism between thesis and antithesis is named and left unresolved – there is no Aufhebung of the fundamental antagonism. The crisis remains subject of conversation, subject of dialogue. A Left Hegelian reading comports well with Newsom’s claim that “wisdom dialogue … privileges argument over resolution.”(17) In many ways, the beginning coincides with the end, “the dialogue begins … with the bitter complaint of a righteous sufferer.” (18)  This is to say that the conversation begins and ends with truth. As Adorno notes, “The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth,” (19) and we find this affirmed throughout the dialogues of Job.

This affirmation comes first at the opening of Job’s dialogue with his friends. Whereas Job responds to the loss of his children and wealth with pious acceptance, and responds to his bodily afflictions in the same manner, he does not piously accept his friends’ “wisdom.” If Job were to follow the pattern, then “we [would] expect Job to make a third remarkable word of unconditional acceptance in response to friends.” (20) But he does not. Instead, Job enters into dialogue.

In this light, Job’s sustained complaint is the twist – the third resignation is absent, at least until God speaks – and even then we must ask if this is proper resignation. (And one is tempted to ask: is there not a (missing) third encounter with Satan? If in the first two encounters, Satan asks whether Job will maintain his righteousness in the absence of wealth and health, might this third encounter have Satan ask whether Job will maintain his righteousness in the absence of meaning?)

What is essential here is the move into dialogue. Newsom observes that the monologic folk tale is interrupted by the wisdom dialogue, and yet the monological folk tale returns at the end. Does monologic, then, have “the last word”? Newsom argues against this reading, because the structure of the book itself puts the two modes (monological folk tale and dialogical wisdom) into dialogue. (21) And yet there is irony in the fact that the monological folk tale is the source of meaninglessness – the fundamental antagonism- it is the folk tale that reveals God’s (lack of) motive. (22) Newsom claims that this rupture between the tale and the dialogue “produces a character who has made a decisive break with a previous worldview and a previous identity within that worldview.” (23)

Is this really the case? Is Job not still very much within the original worldview, albeit in a mode of protest? It would appear that Job’s honesty has yet to draw him into the blasphemy necessary to fully confront his situation and take responsibility in the face of it. Despite his dialogical question-asking, Job has not gone far enough – he has not followed his wife’s wise advice to  hold fast to his integrity, curse God, and die. (24) And so God must blaspheme on Job’s behalf.

(The) Blaspheming God

Newsom is vexed that with the arrival of God in the dialogue, the divine “last word” will destroy any vestige of dialogic, bringing the entire book to a monological conclusion. She notes that through the wisdom dialogue, there is a “movement from dialogic to monologic as the voices are progressively shown to be inadequate.” (25)  This move is finished in in Job 42:1-6, which Newsom reads as Job’s capitulation.

“The reader is thus apparently encouraged to embrace the vision of the divine speeches with their non-anthropocentric representation of the world in which the chaotic, although contained within the reliable structures of creation, is nevertheless an irreducible element in existence.” (26)

Further, she points out that, although God “officially condemns Job’s friends, they “are vindicated – Job bows to God and is restored.” (27) Has the divine voice destroyed dialogue? Newsom’s solution is to suggest that the double-ending – Job’s alleged capitulation in 42:1-6 and the folk tale epilogue – produce tensions (are the friends vindicated? etc.) such that this ending is “gesturing toward closure while signaling that the issues raised are far from settled.”(28)

While I share Newsom’s concern that the divine voice not collapse dialogue, I do not find the contradictions in the close of the story sufficient to keep dialogue alive. It seems too easy to describe these concerns as “too wonderful for me,” and drop them.  While Newsom seeks to avoid the monological approaches, the “pious lies” discussed in the first section above, her argument here is not convincing.

There is an old Jewish tale that is helpful here:

“Two rabbis are arguing over a verse in the Torah, an argument that has gone on for over twenty years. In the parable God gets so annoyed by the endless discussion that he comes down and he tells them that he will reveal what it really means. However, right at this moment they respond by saying, ‘What right do you have to tell us what it means? You gave us the words, now leave us in peace to wrestle with them.’ “(29)

I believe that what we see happening in Job is parallel to this tale. In the tale, the rabbis rejection of God’s offered wisdom strikes one as blasphemous. Yet if we understand truth as dialogical, their blasphemy is seen as deeply faithful. In Job’s dialogue with his friends, blasphemy is judiciously avoided, and God’s goodness is appealed to in order to make sense of Job’s experience. In the Book of Job, it is God who must make the blasphemous claims in order to show Job the blasphemy of Job’s fidelity. It takes an outrageous rejection of the entire (actually blasphemous) framework Job and his friends share to shake Job loose of his misunderstanding. Keller writes,

“How does the creator’s delight in the complexity of the nonhuman creation answer the question of unjust human suffering? Certainly not in … a reassuring sense … So to Job’s impassioned challenge of God’s goodness the answer is: [Leviathan], the monster of chaos!” (30)

There is no divinely ordained and maintained order that will account for Job’s experience. Job is right to be in dialogue with his friends, but wrong to expect God to provide him with meaning. It is in Job’s honest recognition of this that he comes to repentance – his repentance is not a compromise, but an admission that he has “uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Job held a blasphemous understanding of God, and it took God’s total rejection of Job’s questions to reveal this to Job. In response, Job repents of his sin of faithfulness – realizing now he had been repeating the shibboleths of belief right along with his friends, even though he thought he was in dispute with them.

Now we return to “the first word”. Contra the claims of Collins and others that the problem the book addresses is that of the suffering righteous and the prospering wicked, this problem is merely the question that draws Job into confrontation with God. God’s response puts Job in confrontation with himself, and his own understanding. The narrator reinforces this in Job 1 by declaring Job’s innocence and the causelessness of God’s act. We know from the start there will be no monological truth coming from God. Job’s “last word” acknowledges there will be no “last word” from God. The end of this dialogue does not end dialogue. As the history of the reading of the Book of Job attests, this is where the conversation really gets started, and truth begins to emerge among those in the conversation.

It is now that Job has encountered God, that he can embrace the folk tale’s “last word” in the midst of his life. God restores Job, not because of Job’s merit, but because it is in the midst of Job’s life that he can continue to live in the event of the “last word”.

“[E]ven for one as hurt as Job, new life can take place, … because he has refused to suppress piously the turbulent truth of his own experience, but has grieved and raged and confronted the meaning of life. Ex profundis”. (31)

Endnotes

1 John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2004), p 505

2 Job 1:1

3 Job 1:8, 2:3

4 Kathryn Schifferdecker, Out of the Whirlwind (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 67-8

5 Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield, The Almond Press, 1983), p 54

6 Crenshaw, 102

7 Marvin H. Pope, The Anchor Bible, Job (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), LXXXI

8 James Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, an Introduction (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p 108

9 Marvin H. Pope, The Anchor Bible, Job (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), LXXXI

10 John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2004) p 517

11 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 39.

12 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 75.

13 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 87-108

14 Ibid, 97

15 Ibid, 98

16 Ibid, 99

17 Ibid, 102

18 Ibid, 102

19 Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1990), p 17-18

20 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 103

21 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 104

22 Of course, it can be argued that God’s motive is to win a wager and demonstrate Job’s righteousness to Satan, although this remains an empty and therefore meaningless motive.

23 Ibid.

24 Job 2:9. Newsom makes the connection between Job’s integrity and cursing God (and therefore revealing the wisdom of Job’s wife) in The Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville, Westminster John Know Press, 1998)

25 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 105

26 Ibid, 106

27 Ibid, 107

28 Ibid, 107

29 Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, Paraclete Press, 2006)

30 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 76.

31 Ibid.

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Villains of All (Denomi)Nations: Radical Theology as Piracy

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On May 7, 1694, in rebellion against brutal conditions and labor without pay, first mate Henry Every led a mutiny of the sailors on Charles II, declaring, “I am a man of fortune, and I will seek my fortune!” After successfully commandeering the ship, Every was elected captain, and rechristened the Charles II as The Fancy. Every and crew went on to become the most celebrated pirates of their day, capturing fortune for captain and crew, and leaving a dangerous example of successful rebellion in their wake.

In his fantastically raucous book, Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us, English math teacher and theological pirate @KesterBrewin presents a history of piracy, emphasizing the way that piracy emerges throughout history at times when the Commons become enclosed by those in power. Piracy is a rebellion against the exclusive possession of goods by the few at the expense of the many.

Brewin presented his work recently at Subverting the Norm: Can Postmodernism Theology Live in the Churches?, a conference organized by @PhilSnider and @KSMoody. The conference was a gathering of academics and practitioners of radical theology. Participants (and they were participants: one-third of us presented at some point during the two-day conference) came from a variety of academic, denominational, and non-affiliations. All came to further the developing conversation around radical theology, and to get to know those involved in the mutiny radical theology represents.

Jack Caputo (not on twitter – for shame!) quickly substituted “radical theology” for the more bland “postmodern theology”. If flying the “postmodern” flag helped bring people into the conversation, hoisting the Jolly-Roger-esque “radical theology” flag was a sign of this theology’s new identity.

Brewin points out that sailors lived brutally short lives. Their deaths were recorded in the crew roster: a small skull and crossbones with wings next to a name indicated a death. After mutiny, pirates took the symbol (sans wings) as their flag, proclaiming that “we are the dead”: dead to the navy, dead to the demands of the empire. Much like the later Anarchist rallying cry of “No Gods, No Masters!”, or the Lacanian proclamation of the “death of the Big Other”, the pirates under the Jolly Roger established the possibility of their future on the rejection of their past.

Caputo describes radical theology as the radicalization of some context. Every radical theology has a history and tradition it engages. There is no radical theology outside the church, then. Radical theology can only live “in” the churches, as it were. But can it live there? This is the question that generated the conference, and continues to be engaged as the conversation spills over onto twitter and the various blogs run by conference participants. @TrippFuller broadcast a number of key talks and panel discussions via his @HomebrewedXnty podcast.

Caputo’s description of radical theology radicalization of a certain tradition draws a strong parallel between radical theology and piracy. In a mutiny, the ship is commandeered, not rejected. If piracy is a rebellious response to the enclosure of the commons, it rejects enclosure because of the value of the goods enclosed to all. Radical theology, like piracy, does not reject tradition and theology, but stages mutinies that liberate and redistribute the goods.

So radical theology is a deeply faithful spiritual practice (1) that responds to the event that produces the goods in question. In Caputo’s terms, it is a response to the call of the event that is harbored in the Name of God. Each tradition names the event in a way that encloses the event in some way – radical theology responds by staging mutinies against all attempts at enclosure.

Radical theology, like piracy, is also a generous form of engagement – it is “for others”. Pirates were termed “Villains of All Nations”: the rejected ones who dared rebel against the empires that had enclosed the commons. As outsiders, pirates were free to welcome all to their ranks. They were much like the Christians who Paul described as the “trash of the world”. The fortune recaptured from enclosure was distributed among the pirates. Power was likewise organized along democratic lines.

So far, so good, but how does this play out in contemporary practice? The STN conference staged some successful mutinies against enclosure. Costs for participation were kept low, conference attendees were often presenters, and the “names” that presented attended other sessions, and circulated as “part of the crew” as it were. Q and A sessions translated easily into local pubs, where conversations continued long into the night.

@ikonNYC presented a panel discussion where ikon participants shared their experiences in organizing a radical collective in New York. Key to the conversation was a demystification of the experience in order to encourage others to start their own groups according to the needs of their communities. Radical collectives, like radical theology, radicalize their context, and so need to focus on what is to come rather than what has gone before.

@laserpony, @keegzzz, and @perrodin and @adamdmoore of VOID collective presented a radical liturgy experience which radicalized the STN space. They offered a liturgy that concluded with Eucharist. As each participant received the bread and wine, the words of ministration were simply, “There is no secret”, a blessing, indeed, for a group of people encountering loads of new schools of thought, complete with new vocabularies and library-length book lists.

And yet the STN conference had major failings. Despite the variety of perspectives presented by the “headliners” (who engaged gender, colonialism, abilism, racism, and other sites of enclosure), attendees were largely conventionally educated, straight, white males. Attendees @michaelcarlbudd and @XochitlAlvizo staged a mini-mutiny in calling out organizers for setting a key panel on diversity in a breakout session, rather than highlighting it at a plenary. Organizers responded quickly, moving the panel to the fore, and setting two panels in dialogue with each other to tackle head-on the ways in which STN had yet to subvert the norm in question. This final plenary stood as the clearest evidence of the potential for radical theology to succeed in its attempt to break enclosure, and set clear expectations for the next STN conference.

Mutiny is an event, a response to event, an ongoing engagement. Mutiny does not establish a new, fixed, and perfect order. Henry Every became one of the most successful pirates of all time, and committed atrocities as he did so, atrocities against women and slaves that perpetuated the very kind of enclosures mutiny rebels against. No Gods, No Masters? No Big Others, and No Heroes, then, but Mutiny, mutatis mutandis.

(1) See the work of Katherine Sarah Moody (@KSMoody) on radical theology as spiritual practice, and on the measurable impact on the lives of those engaged in the project.

Christ and the End of Meaning

“Resurrection is not the restoration of what has gone before, something anticipated in the natural rhythms of life, but the abandonment of that kind of expectation in the faithed certainty of new life beyond the point where “possibilities” leave off. Forgiveness is not an adjustment in the balance of one’s good and bad deeds but the end of that kind of calculation altogether. And the reign of God is not the realization of human political hopes but the end of the present order along with its possibilities.

The break of human continuities that “Christ crucified” entails, which only faith can receive and affirm, marks faith as genuine. Anything lacking this element of discontinuity would be content for seeing or knowing – not faith! The authenticity of faith can be checked, then, by what it affirms. There is a unique relationship between what faith itself is and what it faiths. To faith is to live without power over the future; and that surrender of power over the future is precisely what “Christ crucified” entails. To “faith” is to be “crucified with Christ.”

– Paul Hessert, Christ and the End of Meaning

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God in Revolt

“When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”- G.K. Chesterton

Double Kenosis

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Will Schaff “What is Human?”

“The suffering of God and the suffering of human subjectivity deprived of God must be analyzed as the recto and verso of the same event. There is a fundamental relationship between divine kenosis and the tendency of modern reason to posit a beyond which remains inaccessible. The Encyclopaedia makes this relation visible by presenting the Death of God at once as the Passion of the Son who “dies in the pain of negativity” and the human feeling that we can know nothing of God.” – Malabou, The Future of Hegel

Review: The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins (Part 3 of 3)

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Part 3 of my friend Chris’s review of Peter Rollins’ “The Idolatry of God” – both are a good read!

Disruptive Grace

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The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Satisfaction and Certainty. By Peter Rollins. New York, NY: Howard Books, 2012, 208 pages.

Part 3 of The Idolatry of God concerns the Church, or what Rollins calls “the New Collective.”  This community, rather than being a religious crack house, refuses to worship the Idol which would give us certainty and satisfaction.  Instead, this community is marked by an attempt to look through the eyes of the Other in order to see ourselves.  It is by embodying this act of love that we indirectly love God.  The strategies of tribalism (consumption, vomiting, toleration, and agreement) are rejected in favor of liturgies that place ourselves (and our beliefs, practices and desires) into question.  As Rollins has noted previously, this existential embrace of the Other cannot be an intellectual exercise.  It is simply not enough to tell ourselves and others that we are…

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Melancholia and the Apocalypse of God

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“What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
-Friedrich Nietzsche 
 
He feels he has lost the meaning of life. Out of this awareness the religious question arises. The awareness of the predicament is most sharply expressed in great art, literature, and, partly at least, the philosophy of our time.”
-Paul Tillich 
 
Melancholia

Lars von Trier’s film, Melancholia, raises what Tillich calls “the religious question” and can be read through the lens of radical theology. This approach offers both an interpretation of the film and an entrée into radical theology.

Melancholia tells the story of two sisters, Justine and Claire. In the first part of the film, Justine has just been married and arrives at her wedding reception, held at Claire’s mansion. What follows is a nightmare scenario. Justine suffers from chronic depression, and try as she might, she cannot enjoy the party. She is beset my demands to enjoy herself by her family, her employer, and the wedding planner.

Each has different expectations of Justine. Her father is a hedonist, and encourages her to enjoy the extravagance of the party. Her mother is opposed to marriage, and encourages Justine to seek happiness by abandoning her new marriage. Justine’s wealthy brother-in-law, John, tells Justine that since he has spent “a great deal of money” on the wedding, he expects her to look happy in return. Her employer offers her a toast, but turns the moment into an opportunity to promote her to a new position at his ad agency, and demands that she give him a tagline for a new campaign that very evening. The wedding planner grows impatient as Justine’s withdrawal from the party due to her depression ruins his carefully laid plans.

Justine’s husband tries to console her with a photo of an orchard he has secretly bought for her, in the hopes that some day she can go there and be free of her depression. He gives her the photo to keep with her as a memento. After sexual foreplay, Justine abruptly leaves the room, leaving husband and photo behind as she distractedly wanders the opulent grounds of the estate.

Over the course of the evening, as Justine fails to meet the expectations of her family, employer, and social norms, and fails to enjoy the wealth, beauty, and sexual pleasure available to her, each guest turns against her in anger and frustration. As dawn breaks, Justine’s family has berated her, her new husband has abandoned her, and her boss has fired her. All bonds, familial, economic, and social, have been broken in the course of the evening.

The second part of the film takes place some time after the wedding. Justine has slipped into an almost catatonic depression. Strangely, in the time since the wedding, a massive rogue planet, named Melancholia, has emerged from behind the sun, on a path toward Earth. Astronomers predict that it will pass by the Earth, providing an amazing astronomical spectacle, but leaving the Earth untouched.

Justine’s brother-in-law John is an amateur astronomer, and follows news of the new planet enthusiastically. Justine’s sister Claire is afraid that the planet will collide with the Earth. Despite John’s insistence that astronomers have calculated its path and determined Earth’s safety, Claire obsesses about the planet, and visits websites that claim that the planet’s true course is being covered-up by authorities.

John spends his days with his son, Leo, excitedly anticipating the arrival of  Melancholia. Claire spends her time caring for Justine, who she is able to gradually bring to good health. Leo is excited for his aunt’s return to health, as he wants to build “magic caves” with her, a request he makes repeatedly, thought Justine is as yet too ill to do this with him.

Gradually, Justine becomes more functional as Claire attends to her with patient care. Justine is able to care for herself, but remains depressed and uninterested in regaining all that she lost on her wedding day.

It soon becomes apparent that Melancholia will pass by Earth only to arc back again on a collision course. Justine welcomes the destruction of the Earth, calling the world “evil”. Claire is incredulous that Justine could say such a thing. John initially denies the prediction of disaster, but once his own calculations confirm it, he commits suicide. Claire is terrified of her and Leo’s impending doom, and tries to flee with him to the local village.  After returning from this vain attempt at escape, Claire she tells Justine that she wants to spend their last moments together out on the terrace, with music and wine. Justine rejects this idea entirely, upsetting Claire.

Justine goes outside to Leo, and tells him they are going to build a magic cave. As Melancholia looms larger in the sky, the trio gather branches and make a tipi outside. They gather together inside, as Melancholia collides with and obliterates the Earth.

The Apocalypse of God

Melancholia captures what Peter Rollins terms the Apocalypse of God. (3)

This apocalypse is an event that Jesus initiates when he calls the Kingdom of God from the future into the present moment, bringing the transcendent into the immanent. This ushers in the religionless religion that Bonhoeffer identifies as faith:

“Faith is the participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross, and resurrection). Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others’, through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbour who is within reach in any given situation. God in human form – not, as in in oriental religions, in animal form, monstrous, chaotic, remote, and terrifying, nor in the conceptual forms of the absolute, metaphysical, infinite, etc., nor yet in the Greek divine-human form of ‘man in himself’, but ‘the man for others’, and therefore the Crucified, the man who lives out of the transcendent.” (4)

But what brings about the for-otherness? According to Rollins, it follows from the experience of crucifixion. (5)

To follow Christ is to follow Christ’s loss of all systems of meaning (religious, social, political, etc) on the cross. Crucifixion is the experience by which God calls us to enter the world without the power and protection of systems of meaning. Bonhoeffer says that

“[W]e cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! … The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” (6)

In Melancholia, this stripping away of all systems of meaning happens to Justine at her wedding. Yet all of these were oppressive to her – they all made demands of her that she could not meet, and made promises of meaning upon which they did not deliver. Any investment she would have had in them would have been idolatrous. In Tillichian terms, if she had made any of these her ultimate concern, they would have failed to fulfill her. In this way, the stripping of these sources of meaning strips away the power these narratives have over her. So far, this is a properly Tillichian approach, but Rollins takes us further than Tillich. Where Tillich suggests that these idols fail because they do not ultimately fulfill, Rollins argues that anything that promises ultimate fulfillment is an idol. In this way, any image of God that offers fulfillment is an idol. Christ on the cross loses God. Bonhoeffer calls us to live without God. What is lost is the deus ex machina that guarantees meaning.

The crucifixion of Christ occurred outside of all systems of meaning. The crucified were stripped of political rights, were cast out of society, and to be crucified was to be cursed, religiously. So when Paul calls us to follow Christ (in whom there is no Jew or Greek, etc), we are being called to exit all systems of meaning. Christianity is not another meaning-granting system among many, it stands outside of all meaning-making systems. Bonhoeffer addresses it in this way:

“Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlined above [the God of the gaps], which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness. This will probably be the starting point for our ‘secular interpretation’.”

Although Justine is liberated from the systems that oppressed her, her experience of liberation is devastating and traumatic, and suggestive of what is to come in the full Apocalypse of God.

It is once one has been liberated from these systems that the Apocalypse of God can occur, that one can be for-others, because one is no longer committed to this world, one is not defined by it, and so one can be for-others without prohibitions that arise from our systems of meaning. But how can one be for others if one rejects the world?

Starting from Nietzsche’s death of God, Altizer describes this rejection of the world as a radical No that allows for a radical Yes, an eschatological faith:

“Friedrich Nietzsche … brought to an end the metaphysical tradition in the West. … No longer is there a metaphysical hierarchy or order which can give meaning or value to existing beings. …[T]he proclamation of the death of God – or, more deeply, the willing of the death of God – is dialectical: a No-saying to God (the transcendence of Sein) makes possible a Yes-saying to human existence (Dasein, total existence in the here and now). Absolute transcendence is transformed into absolute immanence. … Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence is the dialectical correlate of his proclamation of the death of God.” (7)

Altizer points out that Nietzsche’s critique of the Christ of Christianity makes room for Jesus:

“What Christianity has called the gospel is actually the opposite of that which Jesus lived: “ill tidings, a dysangel.” Christianity is a dysangel because it retreated into the very “history” which Jesus transcended and transformed, the transformation of blessedness of Jesus’ proclamation into the No-saying of resentment. Thus Nietzsche looked at Christianity as the stone upon the grave of Jesus.” (8)

So Christianity has acted to block the Apocalypse of God by becoming a meaning-making system (undoing the crucifixion), and it is this system that Nietzsche critiques. But Nietzsche’s critique leads us back to Jesus, and the possibility of a different kind of faith. Altizer again:

“[In Eternal Recurrence], opposites coincide, radical negation has become radical affirmation. … Does Nietzsche point the way to a form of faith that will be authentically contemporary and eschatological at once? We shall define eschatological faith as a form of faith that calls the believer out of his old life in history into a new Reality of grace. This Reality (the Kingdom of God) effects a radical transformation of the reality of the world, reversing both its forms and structures, a transformation that must finally culminate in the “end” of the world. … [I]n Jesus’ proclamations … the Kingdom of God ceases to be a promise and becomes instead a present reality. … [T]he Kingdom – supramundane, future, and belonging to a new era – penetrated from the future into the present, from its place in the beyond into this order, and was operative redemptively as a divine power, as an inbreaking realm of salvation.” (9)

Eschatological faith is also dialectical. The Kingdom of God and kosmos (“old creation”) are antithetical categories. … But Hellenistic Christianity assumed a non- dialectical form: the world became the arena of sanctification, redemption now takes place without any effect upon the actual order of the world. … The Church thus invested the world with an ontological reality … and thereby established what Kierkegaard was to call the great compromise of Christianity. … Christianity had become a “world-affirming” religion. … If the death of God has resurrected an authentic nothingness, then faith can no longer greet the world as the “creation”. Once again faith must know the world as “chaos”. … Therefore the dissolution of the “being” of the world has made possible the renewal of the stance of eschatological faith; for an ultimate and final No-saying to the world can dialectically pass into the Yes-saying of eschatological faith.”

Justine demonstrates with No-saying when she calls the world evil. Whereas John denies that Melancholia will destroy the world, and Claire is terrified that it might, Justine never indicates what her expectation is, though she welcomes an apocalypse, because the world, as it exists, is a source of oppression.

This echoes Tillich’s concern about reading God into the horizontal plane:

“If the idea of God (and the symbols that applied to Him) which expresses man’s ultimate concern is transferred to the horizontal plane, God becomes a being among others whose existence or nonexistence is a matter of inquiry. Nothing, perhaps, is more symptomatic of the loss of the dimension of depth than the permanent discussion about the existence or nonexistence of God – a discussion in which both sides are equally wrong, because the discussion itself is wrong and possible only after the loss of the dimension of depth.” (10)

For John and Claire, the threat posed by Melancholia is their ultimate concern. John responds to this threat by despair and suicide, and Claire responds by despair and religious ritual: she tries to flee what cannot be escaped, and then proposes “wine and music” at the mansion(Sunday morning, anyone?). The existence of the threat is of ultimate concern for the couple.

For Justine, however, the ultimate concern is the evil of the world. If Melancholia will destroy the evil world, she welcomes it. Her eschatological faith is one that is independent of the actual threat of Melancholia. If the rogue planet had simply passed by Earth, she would still remain committed to the destruction of the world.

Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

“Who is God? Not in the first place an abstract belief in God, in his omnipotence, etc. That is not a genuine experience of God, but a partial extension of the world. Encounter with Jesus Christ. The experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that ‘Jesus is there only for others’. His ‘being there for others is the experience of transcendence. It is only this ‘being there for others’, maintained till death, that is the ground of his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.” (11)

Justine has experienced crucifixion. A personal apocalypse engenders in her an eschatological faith that prepares her for the Apocalypse of God: the coming of Melancholia to destroy the world. Because Justine’s faith is not a world-affirming faith, she can become other-affirming. The radical No produces a radical Yes. She says No to Claire’s religious responses to Melancholia, to anything that offers assurance (and not just false assurance). Justine’s radical Yes comes when she goes to Leo and tells him it is time to build a magic cave. Justine invokes magic and uses sticks to build an obviously-feeble shelter. There is absolutely no pretense here. The invocation of magic and the frail and failing shelter point directly to the coming Apocalypse, rather than directing Leo and Claire to thoughts of escape or survival. In this place of weakness, Justine comes together with those she loves, free to love them as they are as Melancholia/God comes to obliterate the world.

This is radical liturgy: an act of love that exposes and affirms our brokenness rather than trying to cover over it. In this space, Claire is able to weep, and to be with those she loves. Justine remains calm, and Leo, the child, waits almost expectantly. Radical liturgy does not draw us into despair, but acknowledges the place where we already are, and allows us to acknowledge it and share that place with others in love.

What happens after the world ends? What does the post-apocalypse look like? It is not a place where all is made right according to the systems of meaning of the old creation. It is a place that begins to emerge in the magic cave, in a place of weakness, united in love and frailty, open to the world-destroying, incoming Apocalypse of God.

1 Walter Kaufmann, trans., The Gay Science (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 182.
2 F. Forrester Church, Ed., The Essential Tillich (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 2-7
3 Peter Rollins, The Idolatry of God (New York: Howard Books, 2012)
4 John de Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (London: Collins, 1987), 273-75.
5 Peter Rollins, Insurrection (New York: Howard Books, 2011)
6 John de Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (London: Collins, 1987), 273-75.
7 Thomas J.J. Altizer and William Hamilton, Radical Theology and The Death of God (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1966) 98-103.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 F. Forrester Church, Ed., The Essential Tillich (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 2-7
11 John de Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (London: Collins, 1987), 291.