William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theological Educator

Category: Papers (Page 1 of 2)

Freedom, Contingency and God’s Suffering Love in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Adequacy of the Analogy of Drama for Imagining the God-World Relationship

The following is a working draft of the presentation I will be making at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in the Open and Relational Theologies session on the topic, “A Wider View of Theodicy: The Place of Sufferers, Mourning, Love, and Lament in Theological and Philosophical Reasoning”:

“The Hegelian babble about the real being the true is therefore the same kind of confusion as when people assume that the words and actions of a poet’s dramatic characters are the poet’s own. We must, however, hold fast to the belief that when God—so to speak—decides to write a play, he does not do it simply in order to pass the time, as the pagans thought. No, no: indeed, the utterly serious point here is that loving and being loved is God’s passion. It is almost—infinite love!—as if he is bound to this passion, almost as if it were a weakness on his part; whereas in fact it is his strength, his almighty love: and in that respect his love is subject to no alteration of any kind. There is a staggering perversity in all the human categories that are applied to the God-man; for if we could speak in a completely human way about Christ we would have to say that the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” show a want of patience and a want of truth. Only if God says it, can it be true, i.e., even if the God-man says it. And since it is true, it is also truly the climax of pain. The relationship to God is evidently such a tremendous weight of blessedness that, once I have laid hold of it, it is absolute in the most absolute sense; by contrast, the worldly notion that my enemies are to be excluded from it would actually diminish this blessedness.”

The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, quoted in the preface of Theo-Drama Vol. 5: The Last Act, Hans Urs von Balthasar

“If God’s nature, theologically speaking, shows itself to be absolute love by giving itself away and allowing others to be, for no other reason than that this (motiveless) giving is good and full of meaning — and hence is, quite simply, beautiful and glorious — the same must apply to [God’s] “making room” for [God’s] free creatures.” – Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. II, 273

In this paper I’d like to propose that Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “theo-dramatic” account of divine and human freedom, on the one hand, and divine experience in humanity’s suffering, on the other hand, can shed light on God’s love for an open and relational understanding of the doctrine of God. For Christian love — both of God and of neighbor — has not only an open and relational quality, but it is also dramatic in that it is embedded in a history the oscillates between freedom and contingency.

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Transcendence or Transimmanence? Theology for Critical Movements of Resistance

This is a recently updated excerpt from a response I wrote (here is the original) to Mark L. Taylor’s powerful and creative paper on the subject of mass-incarceration, “Sing it Hard,” (see a more recent edition of the paper here) for a forthcoming publication with Orbis Books based on the Claremont Graduate University conference, “What are the Most Compelling Theological Issues Today?” held in April of 2012, edited and compiled by Anselm K. Min.  What I’ve included below is only a drafted portion of my response — and not my review of the essay itself, which has also been significantly revised — that considers the differences between and adequacy of a traditional theology of “transcendence” and Taylor’s appropriation of Jean-Luc Nany’s ontology of “trans-immanence,” respectively.  For context then, it may be helpful for those interested to familiarize themselves with the links above.  Basically though, to put it in very crude terms, I think the difference comes down to whether one has faith in a real God that is active in the world and evokes worship — i.e., A God who is transcendent and “personal” — or not (transimmanence).

The notion of transimmanence denies that the “unlocking of the world’s continual unfolding of itself to itself,” or opposition to “those structures that would lock it down [in its] place” need reference a transcendent God. But then transimmanence, as Nancy has it, is necessarily an open immanence, not a closed one.[i] In fact, it is resistance to closure, and as such constructive and surely a viable concept for thinking resistance. Transimmanence for Nancy is conceived as “ex-positional through the arts, works to clear passage ways, moving deftly, creatively, to make place(s) and space(s) of world.”[ii] It “names within Nancy’s project the dynamic, ceaselessly flowing sense of the world, liberating world continually into itself, evolving and revolving into even more textured and artfully ex-posited complexity . . . a ‘revolt of bodies’ toward ‘freedom.’”[iii]  Nancy’s transimmanence is “not simply a matter of having done with both . . . Nancy, instead, strikes a neither/nor to transcendence/immanence, recasting both in the discursive milieu of transimmanence,” with art as its supreme expression.[iv]

Transimmanence further connotes a dialectic with transcendence, though the latter is not a necessary precondition for thinking the former. At this point one may be left wondering what ontological role, exactly, transcendence really has, other than as that which, while referenced, is refused and declared a failure.  Like Laclau, “Nancy’s refusal is a deliberate working amid the ruins of transcendence.”[v] Transimmanence, then, is a crossing, but only to another world “within.”  While the intention in transimmanence is not to accent pure immanence, or to think “world” as opposed to “God,” the account may leave some less than persuaded of this. A synonymous concept to transimmanence might be “non-reductive immanence,” but this hardly equals “neither immanence nor transcendence.” [vi] For transimmanence remains immanent, and transcendence is still repudiated. Thus, a question arises for me here: Once on a totally immanent plane, despite being able to traverse, slide, or pass through it, does one not suffer from having to choose between saying either too little or too much – too little because human efforts to achieve their ideals are futile, and too much because, when means for striving to achieve these ideals are absolutized, the cost to human life is often immense?

In his book, Critica de la Razon Utopica, Franz Hinkelammert makes a distinction between transcendental imagination and transcendental concepts that may be instructive. Transcendental concepts, for Hinkelammert,

“begin with the objective social relations between subjects and take them to the limits of concepts of institutional perfection. Transcendental imagination, in contrast, begins with the effectively experienced mutual recognition between subjects, [and] transcendentalizes them in a situation of perfection. In the face of the rigidity of the perfect institutions there appears the fluidity of great joy.”[vii]

Transcendental concepts are conservative by nature, always working from within the limits of the present political apparatus for the transformation of society. The transcendental imagination, however, is critical of the prevailing structure, because it “places human subjectivity at the core of what is possible, which, in turn, relativizes institutions.”[viii] Consequently, utopian imagination is like a transcendence from below, which believes that the world can be different, and “emerges from alternative concrete experiences, bring[ing] with it what the biblical tradition calls a revelation.”[ix]

The notion of transimmanence may seem near to the idea of transcendence from below at first glance, but whereas transimmanence denies divine transcendence, I find in God’s otherness tremendous recourse to both criticism of oppression and energy for opposing it.  Until now, though, this analysis risks conflating the political and theological. While inseparable, for clarity purposes I propose a distinction between political transcendence on the one hand and God’s transcendence on the other. Concerning political transcendence, the employment of transimmanence may both resonate with and be enhanced by what Rieger, Miguez and Sung argue in their work, Beyond Empire – namely, that transcendence should be humanized, but not immanentized. For Sung in particular, the question is less about whether transcendence, but which, and how much such transcendence says human beings can achieve for themselves – that is, how realizable their utopia is for a given transcendental horizon. Eschatologically and politically, Sung understands transcendence, as utopia, to be an essential dimension to all human belief and life. According to Sung, that

“we cannot think and live without a utopian horizon that provides meaning for our journey and measure and norms for interpreting and judging reality and also the recognition that our utopia, however desirable it may be, is not realizable in its fullness, are fundamental conditions for our reasoning not to be lost in confusion and not to be carried along by the perversions and sacrifices imposed and demanded in the name of a the full realization of utopia.”[x]

For theorists Hardt and Negri, as with Nancy, “Empire” itself is described as thoroughly immanent. Empire is the nature of the “soft” power of capital in contrast to the overt dominance or “transcendence” of the nation-state, according to Hardt and Negri. Sung retorts, however, that Hardt and Negri have misdiagnosed Empire, and it’s possible Taylor has done the same with the carceral state. In other words, maybe the specter of systems of domination and exploitation are too pervasive and ideologically “transcendent” itself – albeit a false transcendence – to be offset with mere transimmanence. Maybe a robust and imaginative eschatology could make the specter less haunting and expose its futility. But this is still to speak of political transcendence the historical or horizontal, as it were. I now turn to theological transcendence.

For Nestor Miguez:

If Jesus the Nazarene is, somehow, the presence of the transcendent in the everyday world, of the universal God who is expressed in peculiarity, of the absolute incarnate in the temporary and limited – that is to say, shown as the material – and, moreover, the creator of the human exhibited on the cross as the dehumanized of the system, this marks one complete break between glory and human wisdom (which reaches its culmination in Empire) and glory and divine knowledge. But this break is not in the distinction between the transcendent and the immanent, between faith and politics, because the transcendent is included in the immanent, but in its most oppressed way – he became a slave… (italics added).[xi]

Appreciating the historical, political and social dimension of Jesus’s ministry and death is essential for stirring a counter-carceral Christian theology.[xii] The danger of ideological abstraction from the concrete significance of Jesus’s death cannot be overstated. It is no exaggeration in my estimation to assert that, without embodying Jesus’s own adversarial resistance to dominative structures, the gospel message itself will be misconstrued. Furthermore, the mere establishment of a liberal community of difference and tolerance would also miss the mark.

Having said this, is it not also true that the greatest power of Jesus’s life as a critique of the political and religious establishment is principally derived from the early Philippians hymn about the incarnation of divine transcendence in the immanence of a human being? To be sure, as Miguez maintains, the transcendent must make itself accessible to the immanent and from the immanent. This is why I have employed the terminology of transcendence from below. But the immanent would cease to be immanent if it could transcend itself, which is what seems to be proposed in the idea of transimmanence.

If, traditionally, transcendence and immanence only have a binary relationship, and if the objective of credentialed theology is primarily directed toward organizing doctrine, the church, and human life in reference to the transcendent Other, then I join others who wish to abandon the enterprise. If transcendence inhibits creative, artistic expression and its coming forth from the liminal realm of agonistic politics – that is, from the subalterns who experience and bear most intensely the weight of the world and the full force of socially imposed suffering[xiii] – then I too want little to do with it. As I see it, though, a notion of transcendence restricted to the immanent plane is not inadequate, but less adequate, by comparison, to infuse and ultimately sustain the energy and vitality of counter-hegemonic movements. This is true for the victimized and their communities, but even more so for those benefiting from privilege who would be hailed (Dussel) to participate in the trials and liberating struggles of those haunted by the specter of the penal state.

As already suggested, rather than making a tired evaluation of eloquent and promising politio-historical readings of the gospel, which I applaud as subversive, incisive, and inspired, I simply hold that a transcendent reference may remain even more potent for kindling critical movements of resistance. Discard the perverse forms of transcendence, yes, but not what is so central and enlivening to the tradition that has incited great resistance throughout history, even if it has also been co-opted and abused. Genuine transcendence is not the cause of Christendom, colonialism, neoliberalism and the like. On the contrary, it may be the best source for challenging these things.

Most appropriate, then, I submit, is neither the rejection of divine transcendence nor an immanentization of it, but a critique of its distorted expressions – those that reinforce or ossify the status quo of power relations and neo-colonialism, most notably in the form of mass incarceration. This includes both conservative neoliberal (anti-)utopias and religious ideologies that cease to be liberative. The fundamental problem with such ontologies, I would urge, is not that they appeal to transcendence, but that they are closed off, totalized and risk-averse. Transcendence doesn’t have to mean “outside.” A critical transcendence, from the “below” of the crucified, does find its hope in the divine “beyond,” but not because this divine is guaranteed to save us from our social apathy or material irresponsibility. Nor is the beyond an invisible hand that reckons necessary sacrifices (capitalism’s “creative destruction”) of other people’s well-being and bodies disposable to serve the interests of the elite few. The “from beyond” of transcendence is precisely what guards against the common human mistake of putting too much stock in what can be accomplished “from here,” and by our own power, within history. At the same time, the paradox of faith and politics is that radical love and liberating justice for “the wretched of the earth”’ (Fanon) must be courageously sought in the midst of tragedy and in the face of an uncertain future.

For Christians, the depth dimension of this mission flows from God through Christ, as a power beyond history, experienced in history, in solidarity with history, making a critique of history, and giving hope for history. Hence, what should be opposed, theologically speaking, is not divine transcendence, but conservative, neoliberal utopias, which is the type of transcendence that has indeed failed and come to ruins. Is God’s attribute of transcendence an inherent and inalienable part of revealed Christian doctrine? I think it probably is.  So yes, even if it were a bad idea, it would be difficult to challenge.  But on the other hand, is the God of the poor and the oppressed a failed transcendental signifier? Maybe so; one can only answer in faith, and admittedly, simple, traditional rejoinders will not do.  At the same time, I am not sure that the right criteria for Christian theology is a straightforward calculus of political feasibility.  I can say this though as one who still trust that Christians can live into their faith in such a God as cause for renewed hope and strength to rise up and “sing it hard.” For this God, Christians profess, whose character was revealed in a poor, self-sacrificing, executed Hebrew Nazarene, judges the proud and gives grace to the humble.

It was a resurrection eschatology that at least partly empowered Paul and other early Jesus followers to live so boldly for their faith, and with such a counter-narrative to the “lockdown” anti-utopian spirit of Rome. The story of the risen Jesus instilled courage for confrontation with death and suffering. Once more, it seems to me that the problem is not with transcendence per se, but what kind. There are hegemonic and counter-hegemonic theologies of transcendence. Whatever else resurrection means, it is the promise of a future in God for victims. In Sung’s concluding words, “where the reduction of immanence is avoided, there appears the potency of the eschatological claim, of the meaning of justice (Phil. 2. 5-11). To renounce the transcendent is to be left with no standpoint for the radical critique of history.”[xiv]

To stress once more, the claim here is not that transimmanence is an inept concept as far as it goes.  Thus, there may well be defensible grounds for a transimmanent ontology, but insofar as these grounds depend on the conspicuous advantage of transimmanence over a critical and christologically-rooted transcendence from below, I would consider it a hasty dismissal of what the Christian theological tradition has to offer.

[i]B. C Hutchens, Jean-Luc Nancy and the Future of Philosophy (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 167.


[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi]Mark L Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 184.

[vii]Franz J Hinkelammert and Juan Antonio Senent de Frutos, Critica de la razon utopica (Bilbao, Spain: Desclee de Brouwer, 2002), 343.

[viii]Néstor Oscar Míguez, Joerg Rieger, and Jung Mo Sung, Beyond the Spirit of Empire: Theology and Politics in a New Key (London: SCM press, 2009), 122.

[ix]Ibid., 123.

[x]Ibid., 118.

[xi]Ibid., 196-7.

[xii]Mark L Taylor, The Executed God: the Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001).

[xiii]Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 7.

[xiv]Míguez, Rieger, and Sung, Beyond the Spirit of Empire., 200.

Aquinas on Original Sin and Human Freedom


The nature of and relationship between original sin and human freedom is perhaps the most basic consideration of a Christian theological anthropology.  The sophisticated and thoroughly systematic outline of these aspects of human nature offered by Thomas Aquinas continues to be relevant for contemporary discussion.  Additionally, the rise of recent feminist, process, and political theologies in particular has rekindled the need for reflection on the role of divine grace and sovereignty with respect to sin and freedom.

It is often questioned for instance whether upholding the classical doctrines of divine immutability, omnipotence and transcendence of space and time is compatible with the belief in original sin and at least some measure of human responsibility for suffering and the fate of the planet.  The specifications of these doctrines themselves are not the primary concern here.  Nor is it the aim of this paper to pay special notice to the novel features of the recent theological developments just mentioned.  Rather it seems that in view of the increasing plurality of perspectives on these issues, a straightforward examination of what exactly Aquinas has said – and to a certain extent the classical tradition as a whole – is appropriate.  The hope in such an endeavor is for the achievement of a newfound appreciation for how Thomas’s understanding of human nature and its good capacities can contribute to creation care and even social theory, as well as a restored recognition of the reverence, piety, and seriousness with which one of the foremost Fathers of the Christian church thought about human responsibility, the dignity of the body, and the severity of sin.

To begin it will be fitting to first look at Aquinas’s metaphysical account of the structure of human beings.  A number of elements treated by Aquinas that concern the relationship between original sin and human freedom cannot be considered here.  There will not be, for example, ample attention given to the topics of sensation, consciousness, natural appetite (ST I, 77-83), of law (I-II, 90-108), the passions (I-II, 22-48), the structure of the human will itself (I-II, 6-21), or God’s government of creatures (I, 103-119) – all of which are important for the theme of this essay.  Brief reference and explanation will be given regarding these articles wherever needed, but the underlying logic of this essay will follow the sequence of these seminal questions: 1) What is the nature of a human being, its place in the order of creation, and its level of freedom such that it is said to be responsible for sin?  2) What, therefore, is the origin and effect of sin? 3) Is God’s will sovereign over the relationship between original sin and human freedom, and if so, how? 4) Finally, what might be critically retrieved for contemporary theology from the facets of Thomistic theology heretofore considered?


Aquinas takes up Aristotle’s description of human beings as hylomorphic (literally hyle or wood, and morphe or shape in Greek) in which, as substances composed of substantial form and primary matter, the soul is related to body as form to matter; that is, the soul is the form of the body, and the body is the essentially or substantially (in the secondary sense, as ousia) determining, individuating matter of the soul.  The body is activated and specified by the form (in contrast to “second matter,” which is said to be “designated”), while the soul, as intellect and will, is the efficient and transcendent cause of the body.  What makes human beings distinct from other animals as a consequence of this composite union is their intellectual capacity to reason and self-reflect, the immaterial power to abstract from the sensible, and thereby also the ability to apprehend the universal (e.g., treeness rather than just particular trees).  This is why Thomas attributes complexity rather than simplicity to human beings.  Thomas calls simple those “lower,” embodied creatures as well as the “higher” disembodied angels or “separated substances” (“substances” in the first sense).  Human beings in contrast are regarded as complex because they are “situated at the juncture of the material and the immaterial”[i] and contain the perfections of both orders.[ii]

By implementing this structure, Aquinas objects to Plato with the accusation that he has “confused the mode of our understanding with the mode of being of things.”[iii]  Abstraction accounts for the modal difference between what is known as a sensible singular and knowledge itself as universal.  This serves to explain why Thomas would see as unnecessary any separate order of Forms corresponding to ideas.  The species or concept of a thing known by the human intellect, for example, is not another thing in itself, but is the very activity of the intellect as it is informed by the thing in the act of knowing it.

It would be misleading to characterize Aquinas’s account of the body-soul/matter-form composition as simply a position between dualism and materialism.  Both dualism and materialism deny the notion that the soul as the animating, organizing and directing principle of the body.[iv]  So while for instance Descartes’s rejection of the body as constitutive of human directly opposes Hobbes’s denial of any immateriality in humanity, neither is concerned with the question of whether there is anything distinctively human about the body.  In both cases, one is left without the essential language of the body as informed by the soul, which surrenders the body’s status to the command of biology.[v]

At the same time, in keeping with the distinction from Plato, Thomas and Aristotle before him are certainly not setting the essence of human being in opposition to nature.  Instead they consider human beings part of nature, and as such strive to simply accentuate the commonalities of the human species.  Etienne Gilson elucidates the point that “it would be completely foreign to the Thomistic perspective to regard the material universe as the result of some calamity and the union of soul and body as the consequence of a fall.”[vi]  The body is not the prison of the soul.  Union of soul and body is not only natural and appropriate, but also provides a suitable vehicle for the communication of love.[vii]


Thomas’s view of nature in general, which includes human nature, regards it as creation, capable of being neither enemy nor friend of humanity but rather the mere context within which relations of enmity or friendship develop between human beings and God.[viii] Aquinas recognizes the role of teleology and final causality, appreciating the importance of hierarchy in nature, and understanding the natural “part” in light of the “whole.”[ix] In this regard, nature is an instrument in God’s service.

Speaking of creation, Aquinas refers to it as the mode by which all things emanate from God as their principle – the producer of being as such, but not necessarily the direct or immediate producer of particular beings.[x]  Incidentally, the evolution of a particular species or even the emergence of life itself is not incompatible with this idea.[xi]  Yet Thomas affirms that, “to create belongs to the action of God alone,” so one need not envision an exaggerated distance, disinterest or disengagement on the part of God in the creation process of particular species or beings either.[xii]  The Divine Will undoubtedly extends to particular goods for Thomas.[xiii]  It is also true to say that God has willed interdependence of natural organisms whereby some creatures survive by the deaths of others, and this does not contradict the “good” of created nature.[xiv]  Nature is good in that it has being.  Consequently, all things move toward God as their suitable good.  They “desire” (appetunt) God as their end in an analogous sense,[xv] “whether this desire is intellectual, sensible, or natural (that is, without cognition).”[xvi]  To illustrate a case of “natural” desire, Stephen Pope cites the example of a plant obtaining sugars by means of photosynthesis.  Concerning human beings and beings in general, Pope explains that

Attaining one’s own good is simultaneously “attaining” God in the sense of becoming more like God. This is because God is that Being who is fully actualized, that Being whose existence is the full and perfect attainment of God’s own good. Thus, to the extent that a particular creature attains its own good and actualizes its own nature, it “moves toward” God (see ST I-II, 1,8). This is the meaning of claiming that nature in its parts and whole is good “by participation.”[xvii]

Furthermore, Aquinas adopts Aristotle’s order of philosophical pedagogy, which begins with logic and mathematics followed by natural philosophy, ethics and politics, and finally metaphysics.  Accordingly, Aristotle’s approach differs significantly from one that begins with the mind-body problem.  Whereas modernists start by examining the “special nature of mental activity,” Thomas and Aristotle proceed via a “general interest in characterizing the relationship, in things of many kinds, between their organizing or structure and their material composition.”[xviii]

It could be observed therefore that from the perspective of Aristotle and Aquinas, the modern quest for certainty is a preoccupation beyond the scope of a human being’s role in the hierarchy of being – namely, to embrace one’s location in the world already, rather than to desperately search for reliable rational entry.

The same degrees of certitude are not available in all kinds of inquiry by human beings.  Unlike the tendency today to privilege scientific or empirical knowledge, the classical tradition as a whole is interested in and motivated by what is assumed to be the natural human longing to acquire wisdom about ultimate principles with respect to the whole of being.  Knowledge is possible only through the senses for Aristotle and Aquinas, meaning that receptive knowledge is essentially sentient.[xix]  The intellect’s transcendence of materiality, on the other hand, gives access to phantasms or sensible images.  And yet the separated existence of the soul is not in accordance with its nature; it receives species by an “influence of the divine light” (lumen glorie) as a materially constituted body.[xx]

Thus an apparent or even arguably irresolvable tension is present between the status of the soul as at once a form and a substance – form emphasizes our likeness with animals in sharing their genus, while substance designates our similarity to angels sharing their intellect.[xxi]  But Thomas holds that something can only be subsistent if it is complete in nature and existing in its own right as a particular thing (hoc aliquid).[xxii]  And since it is essential and not accidental of the soul to be designated by matter, human nature as Aquinas sees it is necessarily associated with bodiliness.[xxiii]  Therefore the soul is only said to be a substance separate from the body in a diminished or analogical sense.  Such is the mysterious union of the body and soul in Aquinas, which ultimately requires recourse to theology for full intelligibility – but not because he is inattentive to laying out the metaphysical principles.  Nevertheless, it is this theological perspective that will ultimately frame the discussion of original sin.  Beforehand, however, it is necessary to address Aquinas’s notion of human freedom.


As can be deduced from the borrowed Aristotelian metaphysical structure of the soul and the body, Aquinas expounds that the existence of human beings is accidental rather than essential to its nature.  In other words, existence is always at some point only a potentiality, whereas for God it is always essentially actualized.  This difference between esse and essentia – which is much more basic to Thomas’s thought than that of Aristotle – is perhaps Thomas’s most profound and valuable contribution.  Thomas holds that God is essentially a “self-subsisting Being” (Ipsum esse perse subsiste)[xxiv] and the “First Agent, who is agent only.”[xxv]  Unlike all finite beings, God as the First Agent does not act to acquire another end – as to attain what God does not already possess – but only “to communicate the divine perfection which is God’s goodness.”[xxvi]  As Pope correctly observes, “this form of action expresses the greatest liberality because it comes, not from need or utility, but from the divine goodness alone.”[xxvii]  It is only with the presupposition of this basic distinction then that a discourse on human freedom can be adequately elucidated.

For Thomas, the human will necessarily desires happiness.[xxviii]  Of course force and coercion manipulate the likelihood of realizing such happiness though, so it is said that human beings have free choice only in means, not ends.[xxix]  The intellect moves the will by proposing various ends to it, but the will moves the intellect “as an agent, as what alters moves what is altered, and what impels moves what is impelled.”[xxx]  Moreover, the will is even able to move itself.[xxxi]  Thomas asserts that the passions reside in the sensitive appetite, but not in a manner independent from the rule of the will.[xxxii]  The passions are subordinate to but also participate in reason as well.  In this way, Aquinas defends that the will is indeed free insofar as humanity is rational.[xxxiii]  For he says that, “reason in contingent matters may follow opposite courses, as we see in dialectic syllogisms and rhetorical arguments . . . particular operations are contingent, and therefore in such matters the judgment of reason may follow opposite courses, and is not determinate to one.”  Hence, it could be argued that Thomas understands reason to be indeterminate, as human beings engage in comparison and are able to amend their judgment of the goodness in things and potential happiness derived from those things.[xxxiv]

This apparent freedom in human decision and action notwithstanding, the influence of Augustine on Aquinas in this particular matter is clear enough.  Unlike the nonvirtuous person, for example, a virtuous person has a proclivity to choose the common good (bonum in comuni) over particular goods.[xxxv]  The question is, “which agent is freer?” And according to Augustine, it is the one who is most contently participating in the universal good, i.e., God.  Freedom then in Thomas’s view is not a product of individual self-creation but rather is fulfilled by “embracing in a concrete and personal way the hierarchy of goods appropriate to our nature.”[xxxvi]

As already stated, Thomas’s explication of human freedom falls under the broader heading of theological anthropology and hence cannot be properly presented without regard for the theocentric orientation of this anthropology.  Thomas says in the Summa Contra Gentiles that the Divine Will does not remove contingency from things; nor does it impose absolute necessity on them.[xxxvii]  The efficacy of the Divine is not only such that what God wills should be, but also that it should be in the mode intended for it.  Therefore, necessity by supposition rather than absolute necessity is the condition of many contingent movements.  Aquinas gives the following example: if Socrates runs, he must also be moved.[xxxviii]  Thus God’s relationship to human freedom and the activity of creation in general is one characterized by intermediary and immediate causes respectively, which are not reducible to each other.  Similarly, Thomas explains that “[virtue] and vice do not originate in the same way: since virtue is caused by the subordination of the appetite to reason, or to the immutable good [perfection], which is God, whereas vice arises from the appetite for mutable good [privation].”[xxxix]

The challenge for Aquinas’s account of human freedom comes by accepting the concept of the will.  Aristotle had not developed such a concept; it seems to have come from Augustine.  In order for free will to be intelligible, the act of the will must be thought to either erupt into the world without a cause or consist of a freedom that is simultaneously compatible with having been caused – that is, not being the source of its own origin. According to Robert Pasnau, “Aquinas’s theory of free decision falls into the class of views now described as compatibilist – accounts on which freedom can coexist with cognitive and volitional systems that function in entirely deterministic ways, necessitated by the sum of prior events.”[xl]

This appears to relegate Aquinas’s philosophical system to some kind of determinism, but this is not the complete picture.  Thomas is elsewhere insistent that free decision is not compatible with determinism.[xli]  Pasnua observes further, however, that,  “Aquinas explains human freedom without any recourse to an uncaused, undetermined act of will or intellect – as if only an uncaused decision could count as a free decision.”[xlii]  Thus, despite the earlier claim to reason’s indeterminacy, supposing that the will is free to make a choice between two options is now in danger of incoherency.

How is it, then, that Aquinas can purport that human beings have free will?  Since Thomas claims with Aristotle that something is free which occurs by cause of itself,[xliii] a tension must be resolved by distinguishing between degrees and qualities of causality.[xliv]  Freedom for Aquinas then does not require that what is free be the first cause of itself; for Aquinas also submits that the will’s movement comes directly from the will and from God.[xlv]  Still, “human beings are in control of their acts because of a capacity for higher-order judgments and higher-order volitions.”[xlvi]  This is why one can choose to abstain from eating despite great hunger.[xlvii]  In this respect, that Thomas situates human beings above the animals is significant – lest the power of human volition be forgotten.

The discussion of freedom inevitably broaches the doctrine of predestination, which is where this analysis must culminate; but one discovers in Aquinas as well that the free will of human beings has been weakened by sin, whereby it is hindered from good by the corruption of nature.  Hence the subject of original sin and its relationship to human freedom must now be considered.


The separation of reason and the senses, however it is broken down, underlies much of the difficulty with respect to morality.  The traditional Christian response to this quandary has been to speak about nature with recourse to the doctrine of original sin.  As one proceeding by way of faith seeking understanding, Thomas writes primarily as a theologian by declaring that the human will “would be naturally capable of complying with the orders issued reason” save for original sin. [xlviii]  Because of this sin, however, any natural moral virtue not informed by charity is judged to be a weakness or imperfection.

Moreover, it is but by revelation that human beings know their true end as union with God.  Hence Gilson explains, “it is essential to purely natural moral virtues that they have ends that fall short of [humanity’s] supernatural end,” and “[s]ince all natural moral virtues suffer this limitation, none of them is fully capable of satisfying the definition of virtue.”[xlix]  Concerning humanity’s culpability for falling short of this end, Thomas writes the following, making an important distinction between original and actual sin:

So too the disorder which is in an individual man … is not voluntary by reason of his personal will, but by reason of the will of the first parent, who through a generative impulse, exerts influence upon all who descend from him by way of origin, even as the will of the soul moves bodily members to their various activities. Accordingly, the sin passing in this way from the first parent to his descendants is called “original,” as a sin passing from the soul to the body’s members is called “actual.” Similarly, even as an actual sin committed through some bodily member is a sin of that member only as part of the man himself, and so is called a “sin of man,” so also original sin is the sin of the individual person only because he receives human nature from the first parent; and it is called “a sin of nature.”[l]

Furthermore, Aquinas calls original sin, as opposed to actual sin, a habit.  He distinguishes between two different kinds of habits, however.  The first kind is that by which power is inclined to an act.  The second kind is “the disposition of a complex nature, whereby that nature is well or ill disposed to something, chiefly when such a disposition has become like a second nature, as in the case of sickness or health.”[li]  A habit in this second sense then is not “infused” or “acquired” but “inborn”; that is, transmitted from humanity’s origin in its “first parent.”  One objection cited by Thomas suggests that original sin is a privation, but in response Thomas insists that it is only a partial privation, which is better expressed as a “corrupt habit.”  This corrupt habit is equally present in all.

Next, Thomas insists that original sin is not ignorance.  In a certain sense he is once more following Augustine who says that, “concupiscence is the guilt of original sin.”  Given that everything takes its species from its form, the species of original sin is taken from its cause.  The cause of original sin, Thomas explains, must be considered with respect to the cause of original justice, which is its contrary.[lii]  The differentiation to be made here is that, materially speaking, original sin is concupiscence, whereas formally speaking it is privation of original justice.  There is some debate about which of these aspects is of greater significance for Aquinas.  Original justice consists in humanity’s will being subject to God’s will, whose function is to move everything else to itself as the end. The qualitative deficiency of nature then – as privation of original justice – might rightly be considered the principle nature of original sin, whereas derivatively sinful acts are better called concupiscence.

The privation of this justice, as already implied above, entails humanity’s inordinate turning by its own will to mutable good as its end, as opposed to the ultimate good, which is God.  This turning away from God by human beings is made possible by the nature of the aforementioned freedom of the will, thus characterizing the relationship between original sin and human freedom.  This does not yet satisfy the requirements for explicating the full extent of the relationship, however, as the function of grace and God’s providence must also be examined.

In an effort to defend Thomas’s account of the relationship between original sin and human responsibility for sin as plausible, Jeremy Cohen offers this assessment:

In the state of original justice, man would have been capable of realizing the spiritual end of communion with God, for which purpose God had indeed created him; without original justice, man can no longer properly order his various drives and appetites, and he falls subject to the frailties of human existence. Original sin, then, defined simply as the loss of original justice, does not of itself produce vice in man or in any active way induce him to sin.[liii]

And though Aquinas concedes that mortality, ignorance, passion and a whole host of other negative consequences resulted from original sin, the view of original sin as the privation of original justice amounts to keeping human nature essentially intact.

To further disclose the cause of original sin, an important question for Aquinas is whether sin infects an individual through the soul or the body.  It would appear at first that if sin comes to us through the soul, God would be the author of sin – a postulation that Thomas rejects, since God cannot will evil.[liv]  There are two ways in which sin can be in something – by principle or instrumental cause on the one hand, or as in its subject on the other.[lv]  Despite being generated by the flesh from parent to child, sin is still originally a condition of the will before the other powers, whose cause is the human subject.[lvi]  This follows the order of perfections from the will down to the passions.[lvii]  It is the soul that is the subject of guilt, not the flesh and its parts.  Furthermore, bodily semen does not by its own power produce the rational soul, but only disposes the matter for it.

At the same time, Thomas maintains that the soul’s stain by sin is caused by the infusion of the soul and the body through carnal generation.  Moreover, he later states that while original sin belongs chiefly to the will, the infection and corruption of sin insofar as it is transmitted belongs specially and proximately to the generative power, the concupiscible faculty and the sense of touch.[lviii]  Hence the will is only remotely infected by the transmission of sin.  The motivation for such a distinction seems to be God’s exoneration from the authorship, or at least from the immediate creation and participation in the transmission of original sin during the generation of new human life by infusing the soul in the body.  But this still leaves an apparent contradiction to be discussed below, particularly since the soul for Aquinas does not exist prior to its infusion with the body.


Covetousness and pride are judged by Thomas to be the root and beginning of all sin respectively.  Thomas identifies covetousness as a “genus comprising all sins” because it denotes a propensity of a corrupt nature to “inordinate desire for any temporal good.”[lix]  The primarily means by which we obtain temporal goods, however, is through riches, which is the interpretation Thomas provides for St. Paul’s maxim that “philarguria is the root of all [kinds of] evil” (1 Tim. 6:10).  Every sin grows out of the love of temporal things, and as Qoheleth says, “all things obey money” (Eccles. 10:19).  The love of God, on the other hand – caritas – is the  opposing virtue.  About pride, the teacher of wisdom also claims that it is the beginning of all sin (Eccles. 10:15).  At its most original level, pride is contempt toward subjection to God’s commands as a result of an inordinate desire to excel.[lx]  So though it denotes a special sin in one sense, it nonetheless is the beginning of every sin in another sense.  A special sin refers to the execution of an intention rather than the intention itself.  Yet again we are given a distinction so subtle – between covetousness and pride that is – that one might wonder whether there is a distinction at all.  Thomas uses “self-love” synonymously with pride, which would seem to be the opposite of caritas in the same instance – just like the love of money.

Going a step further, besides the sin of covetousness and pride, there are still other sins that Aquinas calls “capital vices.”  A capital vice is “one from which other vices arise, chiefly by being their final cause, [whose] origin is formal . . . wherefore a capital vice is not only the principle of others, but also their director and, in a way, their leader: because the art or habit, to which he end belongs, is always the principle and the commander in matters concerning the means.”[lxi]  Thus Thomas nominates the seven capital vices: vainglory, envy, anger, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, and lust.  And still further it is shown how derivative sins can be traced back to the capital vices, such as ignorance to sloth, which pertains to negligence by one who “declines to acquire spiritual goods on account of the attendant labor.”[lxii]

Sin diminishes the good of nature by corrupting and wounding it.  The good of nature was the gift to “the first man” in the state of original justice, and as such comprised an inclination to virtue.[lxiii]  What has been destroyed entirely, however, is precisely this inclination, which is why Thomas says there is a diminution.  This diminution does not consist in such things as being, living, and understanding, however; but neither is it a mere accident to the good nature of the subject.  Rather it affects human nature both by an action of the soul and by the passion of an object acting on the subject’s power – by moving its sensitive appetite – which inclines the reason and will to sin.

At the same time, while he conveys with the tradition that death and bodily defects are the effects of sin and therefore unnatural, Aquinas holds that the good of human nature itself cannot be completely destroyed by sin.  The reason for this is found in the Augustinian notion that evil does exist except in some measure of good.[lxiv]  The natural inclination to virtue in the human nature that is diminished by sin was proper to its rational capacity.  But sin has not totally removed reason from human nature.  What is diminished each time that a human being sins is not its root inclination in sum, but “only the part of the obstacle which is placed against its attaining its term.”[lxv]  What Thomas means here is that sin only destroys by way of sin that has been added on to other sin, as in the example of a finite thing being diminished indefinitely through a continual subtraction of a proportion, not quantity.  For even the “lost,” Thomas avows, retain something of the natural inclination to virtue.  Otherwise they would have no power for remorse.

Sin leaves the powers of the soul destitute of their proper order, which Aquinas terms a wounding of nature.  He explicitly lists the wounds of ignorance, malice, weakness, and concupiscence, which are the result of other sins causing the reason to be obscured, the will to be hardened to evil, good actions to be more difficult, and concupiscence to be more impetuous.[lxvi]  This wounding also includes the privation of mode, species and order.[lxvii]  Remembering that “every being and every good as such depends on its form which it derives its species,” Aquinas avers that mode, species and order are also consequent upon every created good and therefore are subject to the same privation.  This is because “forms of things are like in numbers” so that a form has a certain mode corresponding to its measure.[lxviii]

In addition to being wounded, human nature is said to be stained by sin.  Aquinas affirms that this act of staining causes a loss of “comeliness” in human nature, which is twofold: of the natural light of reason and of the Divine Light (lumen glorie) or Divine Law.  The stain is a privation of union with the Divine and natural light as a result of sin.  Thomas compares sin in this manor to “a shadow, which is the privation of light through the interposition of a body, and which varies according to the diversity of the interposed bodies.”[lxix]  In speaking of these various sins, Thomas declares that the stain on a human being remains after the act of sin has passed. Once moved by grace, however, that individual can return to the Divine Light and to the light of reason as a consequence of the change in his or her will, which is more than simply ceasing to commit the sinful act.[lxx]


From here it is possible to proceed to an account of the function of grace in healing the wounded, stained nature.  This will confer a more comprehensive inquiry into the coherence of the sin and freedom dialectic in Aquinas’s theology.  To review, humanity’s state without grace has been wounded by original sin with a consequent disordering of concupiscence, which prevents acting at all times as reason prescribes.[lxxi] Just as theology does not suppress philosophy – and in the same way that the supernaturally infused virtues do not suppress the natural virtues – neither does grace suppress nature (gratia non tollit naturam); on the contrary, it adds to nature and brings greater perfection to it.[lxxii]

In Thomism, no choice is necessary between nature and grace. Instead, grace presupposes nature, and by way of healing and elevation, perfects it, restoring it to its original capacity.  It does not contradict nature. This reflects the basic theological optimism in Aquinas.  Similarly, theological virtues assist the natural virtues to fully realize fully their proper perfection as virtues.[lxxiii] By extension, a human being can know truth apart from grace, but this does not mean that truth can be known apart from God who is the First Act and Mover; for to know truth is to act by intellectual light, which is a motion produced by creation and subject to the plan of God’s providence.[lxxiv]

When it comes to doing good, because human nature is not entirely corrupted by sin, human beings can work some particular good, “as to build dwellings, plant vineyards, and the like; yet it cannot do all the good natural to it.”[lxxv]  Even if in the state of perfect nature, however, human beings would still need a “gratuitous strength” (grace) infused to natural strength in order to do and wish supernatural good.  In the state of corrupt nature, on the other hand, grace is necessary for healing the corruption of nature, which otherwise follows its private good according to the fallen appetite of rational will.  So too then grace is needed to carry out “works of supernatural virtue, which are meritorious,” which includes fulfilling the commandments of the Divine Law.[lxxvi]  In both cases, therefore, the Divine help is necessary for good acts.  It follows from this for Thomas that human beings can neither merit everlasting life without grace nor prepare themselves to receive this grace.[lxxvii]  With free will, sin, and grace just considered, it is apposite to examine the doctrine of divine election according to Aquinas – the auspice under which freedom, sin, and grace can be reconciled.


Despite the positive light shed herein on Aquinas’s theological anthropology, what is often thought to be a negative side of his theology is exposed upon the consideration of predestination and reprobation.  A full exposition of this doctrine cannot be conducted here, but failing to give a short synopsis would leave a one-sided impression.  It has thus far been noted that in humanity’s corrupt nature, the aid of healing grace is needed not only to love God and neighbor, but finally to obtain salvation.  This grace is always given in mercy, however, so its refusal should not pose an inconsistency in Divine justice.[lxxviii]  For this reason, if unbaptized children or pagans die in a state of unforgiven original sin, Aquinas maintains that their potential for union with Christ has remained unactualized for lack of election.[lxxix]  Predestination consigns some to the attainment of Christ’s saving passion through and faith and charity, while reprobation “permits” others to be excluded from this merciful end.  Predestination therefore is the cause of grace, whereas reprobation is not the cause of sin.  Reprobation is God’s abandonment, however, which leads to eternal punishment.  At the same time, the inculpable unbelief of those who have not heard the preaching of revelation is not what damns, but instead the other sins that cannot be taken away without faith.[lxxx]  This unbelief itself is already a form of punishment for original sin.[lxxxi]  The withdrawal of original justice and grace that makes a human being vulnerable to the stain of sin in the first place has the character of punishment as well.[lxxxii]

Evil and sin are understood as the consequence of God’s creating corruptible beings in a world marked by finitude and chance, and as such are not in conflict with the perfection of creation in its entirety.[lxxxiii]  Since both the generation and corruption of creatures is willed by God, however, in one sense God can be said to will evil – but only to the extent that such evil is assigned to serve the larger good.[lxxxiv]  And in spite of his otherwise optimistic tone regarding nature, “Aquinas’s focus on the good of the whole, and the “fittingness” of the multitude and diversity of creatures, allowed him to acknowledge the real presence of evil in nature.”[lxxxv]

God’s providence over all things is twofold in this schema: immediate and intermediary.  In the first place, the divine mind contains the “ratio” of all causes and effects and therefore the eternal ordering of everything to an end.[lxxxvi]  This is so because the “the order of divine providence remains immutable and certain insofar as all things happen as they have been foreseen,” and as they originate and participate in the actuality and source of all Being.[lxxxvii]  In the second place, however, there are finite, secondary causes by God’s consent and goodness to give creatures the dignity of causality.[lxxxviii]  As Anselm Min explains, these two senses are not mutually exclusive.[lxxxix]

Rational creatures are subject to God’s providence and foresight in such a way to be responsible for their deeds, but this responsible agency cannot be meritorious of grace; nor is it a foreknown, determining factor in God’s election of some and reprobation of others.[xc]  Hence predestination already includes within itself “the dialectic between salvific grace and human freedom.”[xci]  Concerning the reason for such a mysterious vision, the most one might say is that the logic of reprobation is founded in the permission of defect, for the promotion and greater manifestation of the good and perfect ordering of the whole.[xcii]

Nonetheless, one must not take Thomas’s doctrine of predestination in isolation.  Min makes the case that Aquinas – specifically in his earlier work – allows for the possibility of implicit faith and a “moral” way to God: “Aquinas’s God is as supremely “reasonable” God, who provides the means of salvation for everyone according to the nature of each, with full respect for the differences of times, persons, and conditions, never requiring the unnatural or the impossible of anyone.”[xciii]  Min acknowledges as well, however, that Thomas’s agreement with Augustine on reprobation would seem to negate what elsewhere appears to be a “preeminently reasonable, positive, and universalist dynamic of saving grace so evident in Aquinas’s theology.”[xciv]  Aquinas is not as pessimistic as Augustine, but the doctrine of predestination and reprobation certainly seems to portray God’s generosity as somewhat ambivalent or limited.

How might one charitably read this paradox?  Min advises the appropriation of hermeneutical suspicion on the one hand and retrieval on the other.[xcv]  Min underscores the prominent place of the absolute ontological priority the creator over the creature in Aquinas’s theology.[xcvi]  Thomas insists upon not measuring divine justice by human standards and, like Plato, relies upon the “harmony of the order in which each is rendered according to its due.”[xcvii]  Ultimately, God’s will is incomprehensible.  Aquinas is in seamless continuity with classical tradition as a whole by placing a successively glaring emphasis on the transcendence and otherness of God.  In terms of what can be retrieved then, it is exactly this kind of wonder and fearful respect for God’s lordship over creation on the one hand, and a humble appreciation for the thoroughly dependent and finite nature of human beings on the other that has been deficient in so many recent theologies.

With regard to criticism, it not clear given the logic just underlined that the damnation of reprobate human beings is solely their own fault.[xcviii]  Nor is it patently evident how God has not willed sin in creation.  For these reasons, one can justifiably hold deep reservations about the logic of reprobation.  In sum, however, Min’s conclusion is

not that the later Aquinas turned pessimist from his early soteriological optimism but that the [Summa] still bears the unresolved tension between the legacy of the Augustinian doctrine of sin and grace and the more positive directions Aquinas was creatively exploring and ultimate between his own sense of the incomprehensible ultimate sovereignty of divine freedom and his appreciation of the absolute generosity for the divine offer of salvation to all in view of Christ’s death and resurrection for all.[xcix]


There are a plethora of other elements worthy of retrieval in Aquinas, a few of which have roughly been touched on here.  In brusque summation, it is palpable that Thomas is affirmative in his view of nature.  In thinking about sexuality, for instance, he did not see reproduction as unnatural or sinful as a result of “the fall”; nor did he regard the bearing of children as a punishment for original sin – both of which are in contradistinction to Augustine for example.[c] The significance here is that original sin is not a positive trait, and that the goodness of nature holds precedence.

Proceeding from this same reasoning, one can also recall that Aquinas sees organized associations and government as part of the natural order enabling humanity to realize its capacity.[ci]  For Thomas, trade, commerce and the manner of properly ownership could also be performed justly under humanity’s obligation to care for the earth’s resources.  Thus without denying the effects of Adam’s fall on humanity, it is safe to conclude that “the Thomistic position comprised a noteworthy break with previous religious thought and did much to change the prevalent attitudes of European Christendom toward such basic worldly activities.”[cii]

In a time of mass migration, urbanization, depleting, non-renewable and vital resources – in essence, an unprecedented ecological crisis – a high volume of literature and rhetoric that emphasizes humanity’s kinship with nature and responsibility thereof has ensued.  Not only can Aquinas’s theological vision of the goodness of human nature, sin and freedom serve as an authoritative resource for advocating the protection of the planet, but it also proposes a balanced insight into both humanity’s liability for and ability to improve the corrupted condition of things.

Merold Westphal has amusingly remarked that “[c]ompared to Augustine, Luther and Calvin, for example, Aquinas does epistemology as if in the Garden of Even . . .”[ciii]  In doing so, he has typified the tendency on the part of Protestantists and neo-Calvinists specifically to accuse Aquinas of being too naïve about the damaging effects of sin own humanity’s ability to reason and will the good.  In response to such shortsighted criticisms, R.J. Snell retorts: “Original sin [in Aquinas] does more than simply deprive humans of a supernatural gift, for the privation of that gift is the loss of harmony, and that loss diminishes the soul’s natural inclination to virtue.  [For Aquinas,] that the metaphysical structure of the powers is not affected does not mean that the diminishing of inclination is not destructive of proper functioning.”[civ]

What is more, Thomas’s analysis of sin can even speak truth into an era of economic turmoil and globalization.  Relying on the work of Bernard Longergan, Snell extrapolates from Thomas’s portrayal of original sin and comments further about the latent social implications:

[S]in is the cause of decline, of failure to attain our natural good(s).  As a “component in social process,” sin is the “opposite to the development of civilizational order,” and society becomes “in favor of the powerful, the rich, or the most numerous class,” and there results “from sin a bias in favor of certain groups and against other groups.”  In the decline of civilization, creativity is abandoned as those insights which might lead to new policies are refused by the contraction of consciousness, or if those constructive insights are made by some they are rejected as the intelligent policy or idea “has to combine with power, with wealth, with popular notions, before it can be realized.”[cv]

Maurizio Ragazzi echoes Snell but also links this social analysis back to human freedom by arguing that the social dimension of sin does not exclude, but instead is rooted in the free will of each [human being] who remains responsible for all human action attributed to him or her.[cvi]

Thus one finds still another retrievable dimension of Aquinas’s work in these thinkers on the subject of sin and freedom – even with having inventively extended his thought to the modern political realm.[cvii]  With a proper critique of Thomas’s somewhat deterministic theological framework notwithstanding, a myriad of other contemporary reclamations can be made regarding these doctrines.  The nature of the task for modern-day theologians, therefore – with regard to the important job of recovering the many redeemable facets of Thomism – is perhaps better seen in this post-critical light.

[i] Saint Thomas Aquinas, On Human Nature (Hackett Publishing Co., 1999), x.

[ii] ST, I, 77, 2.

[iii] Aquinas, On Human Nature, xv.

[iv] Ibid., vii.

[v] Ibid., viii.

[vi] Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 189.

[vii] Aquinas, On Human Nature, xxi.

[viii] Stephen J. Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” Zygon 32, no. 2 (June 1, 1997): 222.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] ST I, 45, 5.

[xi] Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” 222.

[xii] ST I, 45, 3.

[xiii] SCG, I, 78.

[xiv] Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” 223.

[xv] ST I, 44, 4 ad 3.

[xvi] Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” 223.

[xvii] Ibid., 225.

[xviii] “Changing Aristotle’s Mind,” in Essays on Aristotle’s De Anima, ed. A. Rorty and M. Nussbaum (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), pp. 28-29.

[xix] Karl Rahner, Spirit in the World (New York: Continuum, 1994), 248.

[xx] Aquinas, On Human Nature, xiii.

[xxi] Ibid., xiv.

[xxii] ST, I, 75, 2, ad 2, and Commentary on the De Anima, Book II, Lecture 1.

[xxiii] Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, 189.

[xxiv] ST I, 44, 1; also ST I, 11 ad 3, 4.

[xxv] ST I, 44, 4.

[xxvi] ST I, 44, 4.

[xxvii] Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas.,” 222.

[xxviii] ST, I, 82, 1.

[xxix] ST, I-II, 10, 2.

[xxx] ST, I, 82, 4.

[xxxi] Aquinas, On Human Nature, xvii.

[xxxii] ST I-II 23, 1.

[xxxiii] ST, I, 83, 1.

[xxxiv] Aquinas, On Human Nature, xvii.

[xxxv] Ibid., xviii.

[xxxvi] Ibid., xix.

[xxxvii] SCG I, 35.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] I-II, 84, 4.

[xl] Robert Pasnau, Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature: A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae 1a, 75-89 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 221.

[xli] ST I, 83, 1.

[xlii] Pasnau, Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature: A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae 1a, 75-89, 221.

[xliii] ST I, 83, 1.

[xliv] God is the efficient cause of the very being of things.  God is the exemplary cause and final cause of all things.  The formal cause is the form or shape of the thing that makes it what it is.  Human soul is the form of a human being, making it a human body rather than the body of a dog.  Material cause is that by which something is composed, as a table is made of wood.

[xlv] Pasnau, Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature: A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae 1a, 75-89, 227.

[xlvi] Ibid., 230.

[xlvii] Ibid., 232.

[xlviii] Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, 339.

[xlix] Ibid., 340.

[l] ST I-II, 81, 1.

[li] ST I-II, 82, 1.

[lii] ST I-II, 82, 3.

[liii] Jeremy Cohen, “Original Sin as the Evil Inclination: a Polemicist’s Appreciation of Human Nature,” Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 3 (July 1, 1980): 505.

[liv] SCG I, 95.

[lv] ST I-II, 83, 1.

[lvi] ST I-II, 83, 3.

[lvii] It might be objected here that the intellect is higher in the order of perfections than the will so as to be unaffected by original sin, but Thomas says that while “the intellect precedes the will, in one way, by proposing its object to it . . . [i]n another way, the will precedes the intellect, in the order of motion to act, which motion pertains to sin” (I-II, 83, 3).

[lviii] ST I-II, 83, 4.

[lix] ST I-II, 84, 1.

[lx] ST I-II, 84, 2.

[lxi] ST I-II, 84, 3.

[lxii] ST I-II, 84, 4.

[lxiii] ST I-II, 85, 1.

[lxiv] ST I-II, 85, 2.

[lxv] ST I-II, 85, 2.

[lxvi] ST I-II, 85, 3.

[lxvii] ST I-II, 85, 4.

[lxviii] Metaph. viii.

[lxix] ST I-II, 86, 1.

[lxx] ST I-II, 86, 2.

[lxxi] Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, 339.

[lxxii] Ibid., 343.

[lxxiii] Ibid.

[lxxiv] ST I-II, 109, 1.

[lxxv] ST I-II, 109, 2.

[lxxvi] ST I-II, 109, 4.

[lxxvii] ST I-II, 109, 5-6.

[lxxviii] ST II-II, 2, 5.

[lxxix] ST III, 8, 3.

[lxxx] ST II-II, 10, 1.

[lxxxi] Anselm K. Min, Paths to the Triune God: An Encounter Between Aquinas and Recent Theologies (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 110.

[lxxxii] ST I-II, 85, 5.

[lxxxiii] Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas.,” 223.

[lxxxiv] Here the argument is made with reference to God’s secondary acts as the Prime Mover, which cannot be in conflict with God’s nature – in contrast to what was said previously about God’s primary acts which cannot contradict God’s nature.

[lxxxv] Pope, “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” 223.

[lxxxvi] Min, Paths to the Triune God, 111.

[lxxxvii] Ibid., 112-3.

[lxxxviii] ST I, 22, 3.

[lxxxix] Min, Paths to the Triune God, 111.

[xc] ST I, 22, 2 ad 5.

[xci] Min, Paths to the Triune God, 116.

[xcii] Ibid., 114, 117.

[xciii] Ibid., 54.

[xciv] Ibid., 110.

[xcv] Ibid., 309.

[xcvi] Ibid., 118.

[xcvii] Ibid., 119.

[xcviii] Ibid., 125.

[xcix] Ibid., 130.

[c] Cohen, “Original Sin as the Evil Inclination: a Polemicist’s Appreciation of Human Nature,” 508.

[ci] Ibid., 514.

[cii] Ibid., 515.

[ciii] Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith, 4th ed. (Fordham University Press, 2001), 105.

[civ] R J Snell, “Thomism and noetic sin, transposed: a response to neo-Calvinist objections,” Philosophia Christi 12, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 15.

[cv] Ibid., 24.

[cvi] Maurizio Ragazzi, “The concept of social sin in its Thomistic roots,” Journal of Markets & Morality 7, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 363-408.

[cvii] One must exercise caution in basing any contemporary social criticism on pre-modern philosophy or theology.  The risk of anachronism as a result of reading through a post-Hegelian or Marxist lens is always present.


Aquinas, Saint Thomas. On Human Nature. Hackett Publishing Co., 1999.

Cohen, Jeremy. “Original Sin as the Evil Inclination: a Polemicist’s Appreciation of Human Nature.” Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 3 (July 1, 1980): 495-520.

Gilson, Etienne. The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas. University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

Min, Anselm K. Paths to the Triune God: An Encounter Between Aquinas and Recent Theologies. University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

Pasnau, Robert, Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae 1a, 75-89. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Pope, Stephen J. “Neither Enemy nor Friend: Nature as Creation in the Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas..” Zygon 32, no. 2 (June 1, 1997): 219-230.

Ragazzi, Maurizio. “The concept of social sin in its Thomistic roots.” Journal of Markets & Morality 7, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 363-408.

Rahner, Karl, Spirit in the World. New York: Continuum, 1994.

Snell, R J. “Thomism and noetic sin, transposed: a response to neo-Calvinist objections.” Philosophia Christi 12, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 7-28.

Westphal, Merold. Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. 4th ed. Fordham University Press, 2001.

Christian Realism or Liberation Theology? A Comparison and Short Reflection on the Social Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and Leonardo Boff


Christian ethicist and realist Reinhold Niebuhr unfortunately did not live long enough to have the chance to engage the various liberationist voices from the Southern Hemisphere.  Niebuhr espoused a social view of the world known as Christian realism, which according to Ronald Stone’s definition is “descriptive of socially engaged, reformist Christians who are economically left of the center of the Democratic Party.”[i]  To the extent that Niebuhr appears to be reacting in his writing to a particular political program sponsored by the church, the preceding Social Gospel movement at the turn of the twentieth century must be taken into consideration.  In spite of the harsh words he sometimes reserves for the trends of that period, Niebuhr himself supported a certain kind of socialism.  He was also critical of the Vietnam War, though poor health prevented him from being especially active and outspoken about this

Liberation theology, on the other hand, arose as movement during a period of disappointment after premature optimism in Latin America regarding development and progress – just at the end of Niebuhr’s life.  The historical context surrounding the rise of liberation thought was arguably one characterized predominately by politico-economic despair and destitution.  The chief distinctive of liberation theology is its material social analysis that led to the formulation of a doctrine known as “God’s preferential option for the poor.”[ii]  That is, theology itself was said to begin at the level of praxis rather than theory, and must first take into account the horizon and interests of the disinherited.  For the purposes of this paper, I have selected the early work of Leonardo Boff to be representative of liberation theology.[iii]

At a superficial level, liberation theology has been dismissed as merely a “soft utopianism” (Alves), while Christian realism has been seen been written off as simply an ideology of the establishment (Sanders).[iv]  Sometimes the two systems of thought clash, while in other instances they reinforce each other.[v]  Both function in some respects as Christian public theologies or Christian social philosophies.[vi]  What I hope to show is that Christian realism and liberation theology are not necessarily mutually exclusive, though antagonism between them has persisted.  Secondly, I will provide a brief reflection on both and attempt to point toward a third option.

Raimundo Barreto has contended that there is sufficient evidence to suspect that Niebuhr would have been more sympathetic to liberation theology than many of his followers have been.[vii]  Barreto argues that liberation theology can be seen as a kind of Christian realism despite the clear differences.  Both schools are concerned about social justice and maintain a structural understanding of the nature of sin.  And rather than beginning with abstract speculation or timeless philosophical principles, they also have in common a strong pragmatism and serious reading of reality as their starting point.[viii]

The primarily differences between liberation theology and Christian realism according to Barreto are the following: 1) the socio-historical situations in which they speak, 2) their views toward power, and 3) their expectations about the possibilities for human beings in history (i.e., their anthropological and eschatological perspectives).[ix] A synthesis might not be possible, but dialogue and alliance is desirable.  Such is the purpose of the comparison to follow.


Niebuhr criticizes “orthodox” churches for “compounding dogmatisms from another day” and liberal churches for hiding “their light under the bushel of the culture and modernity.”[x]  For Niebuhr, Christian morality can be neither mere clothing of natural philosophy nor “outmoded authoritarian moral codes.”[xi] Niebuhr’s Christian realism is captured by the notion that the “ideal of love is real in the will and nature of God”, even though there is no time or place in history where the ideal has been realized in its pure form.[xii]  Niebuhr opposes the tendency of churches toward institutional preservation, which often happens by means of literally interpreted myths and bad science.  By the same token, he is suspicious of uncritical cultural assimilation and accommodation.  Niebuhr is confident that the Kingdom of God cannot come about by political means.  As Niebuhr sees it, “both liberalism and Marxism are secularized and naturalized versions of the Hebrew prophetic movement and the Christian religion.”[xiii]  He is convinced that utopianism inevitably leads to disillusionment.[xiv]  Niebuhr calls for a moral life between the dialectical tension of the ideal and the real, of optimism and pessimism.  The church must not deviate from prophetic religion by falling into sacramental complacency on the one hand or mystic otherworldliness on the other.[xv]

Niebuhr understands the ethic of Jesus to be the ideal of love.  Essentially he says that it consists in loving our enemies, abandoning self-love, embracing self-sacrificing service, and unconditional forgiving.  Such an ethic opposes natural morality and the general flow of societal behavior.  As such, Niebuhr concludes that “[i]t is, therefore, impossible to construct a socio-moral policy from the religio-moral insight of Jesus.”[xvi] A Christian social ethic must take seriously the nature of sin and the destructiveness of egoism.  In sum, Niebuhr submits that the peace of the ‘city of God’ can use and transmute the lesser and insecure peace of the ‘city of the world’, but this can only be done if the two are not confused.

According to Niebuhr, one of the critical points overlooked by Christian liberalism is the extent to which coercion exists in every economic and political system.  For Niebuhr, there is no such thing as un-coerced cooperation.  Similarly, moralistic utopianism ignores the sin and corruption of the individual.  For the modern Church and its romantic presuppositions, it seemed that the mere statement of the ideal of love was a guarantee of its ultimate realization.[xvii]  In short, Niebuhr judges that “liberal solutions of the social problem never take the permanent difference between [humanity’s] collective behavior and the moral ideals of an individual life into consideration.”[xviii]  This difference necessitates that collective behavior be monitored and enforced politically – that is, by force, whilst individuals ought to be disciplined by ethical standards because they are more likely to abide by them.[xix]  Hope in mechanisms of social control to create pure justice is always futile, but when it comes to structuring the state, Niebuhr argues that “basic justice in any society depends upon the right organization of [humanity’s] common labor, the equalization of their social power, regulation of their common interests, and adequate restraint upon the inevitable conflict of competing interests.”[xx]  Niebuhr knows that there is no objective or disinterested viewpoint, so he asserts that a system with the most checks and balances on power is the best one.[xxi]


Like Niebuhr, liberation theologians such as Boff do not believe that the church should necessarily be the prominent conduit for justice in society, though it of course has the highest obligation to contribute and set an example.  There exists a certain ecclesiological skepticism in both systems of thought.  Though the church has preached Christ as liberator, but in Boff’s estimation, the church has not generally been supportive of liberating movements for those on the periphery.  Additionally, Niebuhr and Boff together stress that every theology is socially situated.[xxii]

Whereas European and colonial theologies often look to the past to retrieve their instruction, this history, constituted by the subjugation of the poor, is rejected from the liberationist point of view.  It is instead the future that becomes the energizing force for liberation theology – a future that breaks with the sinful structures of oppression.  And if a utopia is being envisioned, it is not to be understood as a synonym for illusion or flight from the present.[xxiii]  Instead it is born from hope and serves as a model for perfecting reality and protects against stagnation.  Somewhat counter-intuitively, speaking of utopia is thought to keep the social process open and prevent ideologically absolutization. For Boff, it inspires ever-increasing transformation.[xxiv]

In Latin America, immense portions of the population have been marginalized.  Systemic evils transcend individual ones and have far greater consequences.  It is not just that collective groups must be analyzed and regulated differently from individuals, as Niebuhr suggests, but that they must be analyzed regulated first and more urgently.  This is the precise situation that Boff believes the gospel is addressing – namely, that of unjust forms of government and economy.  Hence one finds in liberation theology the central motif of Jesus’s teachings about the kingdom of God – not as some unrealizable, distant end, but as a growing, immanent condition that manifests itself in accordance with our cooperation with God to loose the chains of injustice here and now.  Boff understands this kingdom as a global, institutional and political revolution, though he is careful not to reduce it to any one dimension, be it economic, cultural, or political.[xxv]

Thus, all christology is united with ethics.  Boff cites several passages of Scripture: “He who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way which he walked” (1 John 2:6);  “It is not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21-23).[xxvi]  For Boff, the historical Jesus takes precedence over the creedal Christ (though the latter is by no means excluded or eradicated): “According to the parable concerning anonymous Christians in Matt. 25:31-46, the eternal Judge will not ask people about the canons of dogma, nor whether they made any explicit reference to the mystery of Christ while they lived.  He will ask if we have done anything to help those in need.  Here all is decided.”[xxvii] The appeal for change in the prophetic tradition and the language of exodus from bondage are other key sources of biblical authority for liberation theology.  Not to participate in this process of emancipation is to directly reject Christ and disobey God.

Poverty is concretely characterized by malnutrition; a high infant mortality rate; endemic diseases; low income; unemployment; lack of social security; lack of health care, hospitals, schools, and housing facilities.  As such, it is regarded by Boff as fundamentally inhumane, offensive, and inimical to the will of God.  The roots of these problems are not first and foremost identified in individuals but in the ruling class of society, its method and establishment of governance, and a “First World” culture of consumption.  The issue is not one of aid but of justice.  Consequently, the faith of the Western world in progress, science and technology is called into question.  This elitist vision assumes that benefits will trickle down fro the top layers to those at the bottom.[xxviii]  The chasm between this group and this dominated peoples is the major obstacle to development from Boff’s point of view.  The material problem is such that some nations are dependent on others.[xxix]  As a result, a shift in power is in order – one in which more is desired than just revision or reform.  This outlook is further supported by the observation that Jesus himself challenged the existing powers and authorities of repression in his day, which in part led to his death: “The cross demonstrates the conflict-ridden nature of every process of liberation undertaken when the structure of injustice has gained the upper hand.”[xxx]  At the same time, Boff also acknowledges Jesus’s resistance to the temptation of political messianism.[xxxi]  In sum, the way of Jesus is a journey of eschatological hope that goes by way of, but is not limited to political hopes.


One can appreciate the cautioning insight of Niebuhr’s realism to avoid expecting too much success in social reform, drifting into moralism, the potential dangers of utopianism, and the overly direct theologizing of politics without adequate attention to concrete reality.  At the same time, the contributions by liberation theologians of “passion for social reform, the arguments for the acceptability of revolution as a strategy for social change, and the necessity of moral critique as part of the social struggle” can easily be missed.[xxxii]  Furthermore, those like Boff and others like him (Bonino and Gutierriez for instance) treat utopia not as a fully realizable ideal but as a “hopeful social projection distinguishable from both the Kingdom of God and from the realizable program of existing political parties.”[xxxiii]  A primary liberationist critique of Christian realism would thus object to its pragmatic acceptance of the status quo and its full rejection of utopianism.[xxxiv]

No doubt Christian realism was originally Euroamerican-centric in its view of the world.[xxxv]  But Niebuhr recognized that, regardless of its intentions, the presence of the U.S. in Latin America was often regarded as exploitative.  For Niebuhr, U.S. intervention was generally a block against democratic development – though he affirms that it had made some contribution to achieving liberal democracy in Latin America.[xxxvi]  From the viewpoint of liberation theology, “Niebuhr may have overdone his critique of utopianism in the social gospel and in communism, but certainly both programs had in them grand illusions.”[xxxvii]  What is more, “Niebuhr also critiques the pretensions of laissez-faire capitalism and the utopian fantasies of contemporary American presidents.”[xxxviii]

It could be contested that liberation theology is too totalizing in its denouncement of the market system and all possibilities of reforming capitalism.[xxxix]  Similarly, some have voiced that it has been incapable of transforming base communities into active political forces.  But alternative paths have nevertheless been sought between ‘restrictive exploitative and foreign dominate capitalism’ and ‘inefficient socialism.’[xl] Stone argues that liberation theology has always been more than a theology of revolution and that is more like a form of practical theology for society.[xli]  For this reason, he deems the accusation that liberation theology is completely dependent upon Marxist analysis as wide of the mark.

In his description liberation theology, Robert McAfee Brown uses the maxim, “to know God is to do justice.” In the first place, however, liberation theology presents a theory of injustice.[xlii]  Liberation theologians defines justice as the acts of God in history which free the oppressed from institutionalized violence.[xliii]  Thus, there is really no separation between love and justice in liberation theology.  For Niebuhr on the other hand, “[t]here can be no justice without love, because true justice in the establishment of right relationships, and that cannot happen apart from love.”[xliv]  In addition, Niebuhr warns that love must strive for something purer than justice if it is to attain justice.[xlv]  While it is important to remember that Niebuhr attributed the irrelevancy of orthodox churches to their divorcing of justice and love, Niebuhr nonetheless sees love’s function as one that regulates justice; in other words, he does not apply the terms interchangeably.[xlvi]

Moreover, whereas Niebuhr is skeptical of all accumulation of power, liberation theologians want to harness power and give it back to the powerless victims.  Boff is more hopeful about the level of justice that humanity can achieve than Niebuhr.  This is largely because of desperate nature of circumstances in which so many live in Latin America.  More hope is needed to empower the masses living in misery.  So again, the biggest difference between liberation theology and Christian realism seems to be social location.[xlvii]  Their respective approaches are not necessarily incompatible but rather reflect the different circumstances in which they were written.  Christian realism does not begin from a place of the majority of humanity and their cries for justice.  Its setting, however sensitive to social grievances, is typically from the vantage point of privilege.  In view of this, perhaps one could conclude that each system is “right” for its own context and that the difference between the two is determined more by a matter of degree than kind.

Insofar as recent changes in liberation theology are requiring that its proponents enter into discussion about democracy, there might exist a collaborative future between these two groups.  The impact of world-economic structures on weak economies, however, continues to be missing from the rhetoric of Christian realism today.  The gap in terms of language about economic policies and power politics remains. [xlviii] The fact that both perspectives are “in the church” is not enough to unite the two.  So while it may have been demonstrated that Niebuhr and Boff’s are not in competition, they are not in harmony either. Therefore, another assessment is in order.

William Cavanaugh has avowed that “[t]he Christian is called not to replace one universal system with another, but to attempt to ‘realize’ the universal body of Christ in every particular exchange.”[xlix]  This observation illustrates not the competitive or harmonious relationship between liberation theology and Christian realism, but the cooperative nature of the their relationship.  They are cooperative and complimentary exactly insofar as each does indeed do this – realize the body of Christ in its own context.  As Barreto suggests, liberation theology can benefit from Niebuhr’s reflection on original sin.  Niebuhr’s interpretation of Christian ethics enables one to operate at a level of indifference to political outcomes – not indifference to political action itself.  On the other hand, Christian realism could stand to gain from some of liberation theology’s optimism.[l]  Along with this optimism, liberation theology demands what Brown has identified as the move by citizens in the dominant stratum of society to recognize one’s complicity in oppression, become “traitors” to one’s own privileged class, and broaden one’s base or worldview to include the concerns of the disenfranchised.[li] These three criterion prevent anyone with Niebuhr’s politic from ceasing to protest corruption and injustice or to strive for solidarity with the poor marginalized. With the two systems held in tension, apathy is never tolerated, yet hope for and ultimate dependence on God’s intervention is retained.

Finally, Argentine theologian Gerardo Viviers has noticed that liberation theology is in a process of change and judges that both liberation theology and Christian realism have been too captured by the rational categories of the Enlightenment: “The future theologies of Latin America will be more open to myth, symbol, story, and the experiences of indigenous religious expressions.”[lii]  In this light – beyond what has already been concluded – the way forward might also involve a slightly higher degree of distancing by the church from direct trust in or reliance on political avenues for the achievement of a more just society, both for Christian realism and liberation theology. Such an attitude toward government is likely to foster a more realistic perception of the limits of our capacity to make “accurate prospective judgments about the results of enacting one political proposal rather than another, [more so] than that of those whose thinking hews to the ordinary consequentialist line.”[liii]  Further, this guards the church from getting caught up in debates about just war for instance as Niebuhr was with the Cold War.[liv]  On the other hand, it would protect Christians from becoming somewhat reductionist in the Marxist sense by seeing justice strictly in terms of economics – often to the exclusion of culture and ethnic heritage.  In both cases, however, involvement in politics remains mandated.  Ultimately, this subtle critique should probably be seen as no more than a mild 21st Century modification at best of two enduring contributions to Christian social thought in our time.

[i] Ronald H. Stone, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology.,” in Church’s public role (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 122.

[ii] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Revised. (Orbis Books, 1988).

[iii] Other suitable representatives could just as well have been Gustavo Gutierrez, Juan Luis Segundo, or Jon Sobrino for instance.

[iv] Stone, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology.,” 112.

[v] Ibid., 109.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Raimundo Cesar Barreto, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology: expanding the dialogue,” Koinonia 15 (January 1, 2003): 97.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Rauschenbusch Lectures (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 2.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid., 5.

[xiii] Ibid., 10.

[xiv] Ibid., 11.

[xv] Ibid., 19.

[xvi] Ibid., 29.

[xvii] Ibid., 108.

[xviii] Ibid., 109.

[xix] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932), 262.

[xx] Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, 111.

[xxi] Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 268.

[xxii] Leonardo & Clodovis Boff, Salvation and Liberation: In Search of a Balance Between Faith and Politics (Orbis, 1988), 48.

[xxiii] Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology for Our Times (Orbis Books, 1978), 45.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid., 239.

[xxvi] Ibid., 157.

[xxvii] Ibid., 95.

[xxviii] Ibid., 273.

[xxix] Ibid., 276.

[xxx] Ibid., 290.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Stone, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology.,” 112.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 118.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 117.

[xxxv] Ibid., 115.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 118.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Barreto, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology: expanding the dialogue,” 103.

[xl] Stone, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology.,” 115.

[xli] Ibid., 120.

[xlii] Barreto, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology: expanding the dialogue,” 115.

[xliii] Ibid., 116.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 266.

[xlvi] Barreto, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology: expanding the dialogue,” 116.

[xlvii] Stone, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology.,” 124.

[xlviii] Ibid., 118.

[xlix] William T. Cavanaugh, “Balthasar, globalization, and the problem of the one and the many,” Communio 28, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 324.

[l] Barreto, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology: expanding the dialogue,” 117.

[li] Stone, “Christian realism and Latin American liberation theology.,” 122.

[lii] Ibid., 116.

[liii] Paul J. Griffiths, “The cross as the fulcrum of politics: expropriating Agamben on Paul,” in Paul, philosophy, and the theopolitical vision (Eugene, Or: Cascade, 2010), 192-3.

[liv] Ibid., 117.

U.S. Latino/a Religion and Theology: A Glimpse of Past, Present and Future


A new wave of theological exploration has emerged in the last thirty years coming from the Latino/a religious culture of the United States.  The religious identity of this people group, however, has its birth in traditions as old as any other belonging to the vast majority Anglo-American citizens.  The tidy, fixed labels that are used to characterize and categorize U.S. religions are sometimes necessary and in certain instances helpful, but when in surveying the Hispanic religious experience and culture in North America, traditional boundaries are instantly broken down.  Protestantism, Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and indigenous religiosity have collided to form an altogether new hybrid between Mexican-American or Latino/a migrant and Euro-american religious identities – one that is also sometimes considered a “borderland,” chicano/a (Mexican born in the U.S.), or Mestizo/a identity.  What is  more, there are no rigid borders in terms of geography that define or limit the landscape of this diverse ethnic-religious group.  In order to begin describing how such a mestizo/a religion was formed, the high points of an old and complex “Latin” history must be at least briefly traced.


“Until recently, a Euroamercan male hand has written their history, defined their theology, and shaped their identity.  Yet as Hispanics grow in number, they have begun to write their own stories, a process that consequently makes their perspectives subversive to the dominant theological discourse” – Miguel A. De La Torre

Three broad streams have generally shaped U.S. Latino/a religion: the European, the Native American, and the African.  The European heritage has primarily been Spanish, though not exclusively, and to speak of Spain is also to recognize the shared history with Jews (and conversos, or Jewish-Christian converts) and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula dating back to before the Spanish Inquisition and American Conquest. 

Spain was invaded and conquered by the Moors in 711.  Thereafter is called the period of convivencia (living together) in which some wars were still fought, but rarely for religious reasons.[i] Overall, this was a time of relative peace between the three Abrahamic faith traditions.  It consisted of great cultural exchange along with racial and ethnic blending.  Not surprisingly, this Late Medieval Era continues to fascinate scholars today.

After nearly a millennium of Islamic rule in Andalusia, Granada fell to the armies of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile’s “Reconquest” in 1492.  Nearly 200,000 Jews were required to leave the country, and tens years later all Moors were also expulsed.  The Spanish were convinced that God had given them this task of re-conquering the country on behalf of the Christian faith.[ii]  Regarding the reconquista, Rusto Gonzales notes the interesting datum that many of the families of Moors and Jews who were forced to convert or evacuate had lived in Spain much longer than any English-speaking people have lived in the United States.[iii] 

Upon confronting the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Spanish “explorers” would give a document called a Requerimiento to the leaders of native tribes, which would explain that Jesus Christ was the ruler of the world, and that God had given the power of this rule to the Pope and the crown of Spain.  This authority was said to be passed down to these crusaders themselves, legitimizing their invasion and lordship over the land.  If there was any resistance – even though there was obviously no way for the two groups to understand each other – the locals would then be regarded as rebels and could be treated as such.  Encomiendas, on the other hand, were selected numbers of indigenous representatives who were trained and taught in the way of Spanish Christendom to then preside over other local inhabitants on behalf of Spanish “nobles.”  Though this latter practice had greater potential for civility, both methods were frequently abused.

The details of such abuse and the atrocities committed by the Spanish against the indigenous during these years after Columbus’s voyages are well known and documented, so a short overview can suffice here:

The quest for gold in Hispaniola was a disaster for the island’s indigenous people and subsequently, for the inhabitants of the whole continent.  When the goldfields failed to materialize, the Spanish turned on the local inhabitants and forced them to supply a quota of gold every three months.  Every man, woman, and child was liable for this quota; the Spanish cut a hand off those who failed and hanged or burned any who resisted.  After only two years, an estimated half of the population had died or been killed – an estimated 125,000 to 5000,000 people.  Those who survived Spanish cruelty were vulnerable to European diseases for which they had no immunity.  When it was clear that little gold available was exhausted, the conquistadores forced the inhabitants to work the land for them instead.[iv]

The legacy of violence tied up in the quest for a New Catholic Spain, “coupled with avarice and religious intolerance, were the necessary ingredients that would lead to the bloody conquest, subjugation, and rape of the native people . . . Some saw the conquest as a means of evangelization.  Many conquistadors, like Cortes, saw themselves as instruments of God and bearers of the gospel, foreshadowing what the U.S. would later use to justify their occupation of Spanish and Mexican territories.”[v]  Using Aristotilean categories, theologians like Jose de Acosta saw the natives as barbarians devoid of reason in order to justify their enslavement and abuse.  Unfortunately, despite the bright like shown by them in a very dark hour, the few challenges toward and condemnations of the heinous Conquistador crimes voiced by those like Bartolome de Las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos achieved very little in terms of improving the treatment of the natives.

Despite the break in the coexistence of the three monotheistic traditions in Spain, the plurality of religious practices from this period was passed on in part through the commercial exploitation and “discovery” of America by the conquistadorian arm of Ferdinand and Isabella.  In the same way that Spain was not monolithic, neither were the so-called “Indians” that Columbus and the conquistadors came across following his landing in the Americas.[vi]  The various people groups and societies ranged widely in terms of their social-political systems and worldviews, depending on whether it was the Taino, Aztecs, Mayans, Zapotecs or others.  Some of these civilizations were extraordinarily sophisticated.  Ultimately, however, their weaponry and lack of immunity to disease rendered their defenses incapable of deterring the Spanish invasion.  The Aztecs surrendered to Hernan Cortez in 1521. The Inca Empire and Quechua religion, located in Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, was crushed between 1532 and 1572.

African traditional religions, especially from the Western region of the continent, were brought by force during the slave trade, and have permeated certain areas of Latin America in varying degrees – perhaps most notably in Cuba.  This has led to some continuity with and infiltration in U.S. Hispanic religiosity.  Africa dance, music, and view of the spirit-world in particular have left a significant impression.[vii]  The common history of subjugation and racism served to further amalgamate certain aspects within each of these strands of symbols and rituals in all of their multiplicity.  

In the midst of tragedy, despair and indefensible evildoings, something remarkable happened.  As the story goes, On Mount Tepeyac outside of Mexico City on December 9th, 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe (also known as “Our Lady Guadalupe”, assumed to be the Virgin Mary, appeared to a poor mestizo named Juan Diego.  Although the truth of the account is disputed, as some suggest it was actually a tool of the Spanish Catholic church to evangelize the natives, the Virgin of Guadalupe has nevertheless remained a powerful and transformative symbol for the Mexican people.  This power is no doubt partly due to the degree to which it runs counter to the violent history of the Spanish conquest and the patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic ecclesial structures.  Most obviously, the Virgin appeared to a peasant worker of humble beginnings and with a bicultural heritage, rather than to the Spaniards or to any church officials.  Secondly, the Virgin herself is thought to have appeared as a mestiza.  And perhaps most interestingly, she came to a place that was sacred to the indigenous and that had been dedicated to an Aztec goddess.  Small wonder then why “the Virgin of Guadalupe represents a cultural and religious union, a mestizaje, that has not only evoked religious fervor in the people, but also has come to symbolize the mestizo/a identity of the people.”[viii]

Skipping forward several hundred years, most Latin American countries gained independence from Europe in the early Nineteenth Century.  For 15 million dollars the United States would “purchase” from Mexico a territory in 1848 that included New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, Nevada and part of Colorado.  In the same treaty, Mexico agreed to accept the annexation of Texas.[ix]  John Quincy Adams and Ulysses S. Grant themselves saw the war against Mexico and the treaty itself as unjust.[x]  Orlando E. Costas contends that “[t]he Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo may have created a political border but could not impose a cultural one.  Mexican families live today on both sides of the Rio Bravo.  They have a historical and cultural claim to the Southwest.  This religion belongs as much to them as it does to Ango-Americans.”[xi]

The reasons for migration across the Rio Grande ever since have largely been determined by economic factors.  It times of depression, less work is available in the U.S., and people tend to blame Mexicans for taking U.S. jobs.  When business is booming, however, a demand for cheap labor increases, and somehow political steps always seem to be taken in order to open immigration doors (such as the Bracero Program) and call upon the Mexican “reserve army.”

Additionally, many Central Americans from the various nations have come to this country because of the civil wars supported by the United States in their homelands, as was the case with the U.S. Contra war in Nicaragua during the Reagan administration.  Likewise, “[t]erritorial invasions and the exploitation of natural resources by U.S. corporations like the United Fruit Company contributed to Latin America’s underdevelopment and internal unrest.”[xii] Now the U.S. is the fourth largest Spanish-speaking country in the Western hemisphere, and making up 25 percent of the U.S. population, Hispanics are the largest minority group in the country.[xiii]



Hispanic Americans belong to two worlds and yet they are not bona fide members of either . . . the future of Hispanics in the Americas lies neither in assimilation nor isolation, but rather in the recovery and affirmation of their double identity.[xiv] – Orland E. Costas

In U.S. Latino/a religion, one finds deep sense of the interrelatedness of all things in an “ever-expanding, extensive continuum that goes beyond our immediate present and place in history.”[xv]  Living as a minority in this context is to live in a space between a variety of cultures, races, languages and beliefs that often clash together quite violently.  The myth of a “melting pot” society becomes most evident in these clashes.  In places where people experience their existence as underprivileged in comparison to the dominant Anglo culture, highlighting ethnic and cultural identity is a means of survival, and God becomes a sources of strength for resistance against oppressive forces.

U.S. Latinos/as are sometimes assumed to merely be Latin Americans or Latin American immigrants in the United States.  While this is true, the majority of U.S. Latinos/as have regional roots that go far back before the independence of the United States or the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848.  In light of the divergence in culture between North America and Latin America, however, Latino/a life in the United States is constituted by a daily struggle to achieve wholeness. Latinos/as are a people separated from the land that previously defined them. The fragmentary nature of this identity lends itself to being understood precisely as Mestizo/a.

By adopting the label mestizaje (Elizondo) with its origins in the word mestizo, which was used described those whose parents were from both Spanish and indigenous descent, the U.S. government’s attempt to hide or erase cultural heritage (whether intentionally or unintentionally) is resisted.[xvi]  Nevertheless, any attempt to encapsulate such a heterogeneous group of people by using one descriptor is necessarily to risk reinscribing notions of exclusion and to potentially occlude important internal tensions and differences.[xvii]  Mestizaje is not a neutral term, and one must counter any effort by scholars or politicians to veil the violent past that this socio-ethic nomination is meant to evoke.

The stigmas associated with being Hispanic in the U.S. are many ranging from being seen as lazy to just plane impure or “dirty”. The legacy of Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, and Spanish “Providentialism” (as guardians of Catholicism) has contributed to these denigrating stereotypes.  Mestizaje has more to do with how one looks or sounds than where he or she lives.  Judgments made about Latinos/as based on their funny accents and darker have been accumulated to create their deep sense of Otherness.  Conversely, honorary “whiteness” awaits those with clear English and lighter skin color. [xviii]

This alienation is part of the reason why the formation and preservation of communidad is so central to Hispanic-American religious life.[xix]  With between two hundred and three hundred thousand undocumented Mexicans arriving each year in the U.S., Latinos/as are rightly thought by some to be the resident alien populace par excellence: “Children and infants who hold no memories of their (former) homeland are condemned to live within the memories constructed for them by their parents.  [As] exiles, aliens, and outsiders [they] feel unable to escape an inner struggle that defines their ethnicity, an ethnicity that frustrates their ability to reconcile their identity with their presence in the United States.”[xx]

Furthermore, The urban settings or “barrios” where many Latinos/as are concentrated has produced an environment in which much of the Hispanic community suffers under residential segregation, discrimination in employment, and political isolation.[xxi]  An increasing number are beginning to discover the power of their vote, however.  Nonetheless, while Hispanics spend around $300 billion a year into the U.S. economy, 40 percent of their children still live in poverty, which is the highest rate for any ethnic group ever recorded in the U.S.[xxii] They are also the most disproportionately uneducated racial group in the U.S. population.

The prominence of machismo or sexism in Latino/a culture relegates the woman’s role to the private sphere, the home, while men take on the public work.  It is considered macho to provide for one’s family.  Moreover, women are less likely to “get into trouble” if they stay in the house.  Men are very protective, but in a paternalistic fashion.  Their job is to keep women away from other men.  The aggressive and liberal sexual behavior of men on the other hand is rarely questioned.  In fact, infidelity itself is thought to increase their machismo.  Men provide the avenue through which honor comes to the family, while women are considered more susceptible to bringing shame.[xxiii]  The irony with Euroamericans talking condescendingly about “machismo” culture, however, is that it can be used to mask the chauvinistic structures of their own society as well.[xxiv]

Though it would be wrong to think of all Latinos/as as Catholics, most do have shared cultural roots in the communidad of Catholicism.  At the same time, it is estimated that somewhere between 25-40 percent of Hispanics are affiliated with Protestantism somehow – and that number is growing.[xxv]  But the Hispanics who have left Roman Catholicism for Protestantism are not necessarily evangelicals or fundamentalists.  And as was alluded above, popular religiosity in the wake of maintained Native American and African traditional practices and spiritualities undergird the heart of daily Hispanic spiritual life.  In this environment emphasis is placed on the importance of home devotional practices, like home altars, prayers to saints, promesas (vows), quinceaneras (fifteenth-birthday celebrations), vigilias (vigils), estribillos or coritos (choruses).[xxvi]  The spirituality or devotional piety of popular Hispanic religion is dynamic and grassroots-based in nature.  Worship is like a “sacred fiesta,” consisting of enthusiastic singing, freely expressed praise, Santa Cena (the Lord’s Supper), confession of sin, and the confession of faith in the One who forgives sin.[xxvii]

Descending from a context where government and economy are often less than dependable (sometimes due in significant measure to negligence on the part of its Northern neighbor), it is no accident that familia is so importance and central to Latino/a life.  It is the perhaps the most basic and social institution of Hispanic culture, spanning far wider than just to immediate relatives.  The social and familial character of Latino/a culture correlates closely with the stress placed on justice as the fundamental value in society.  In Spanish, for example, the English word ‘righteousness’ does not have an equivalent, and is instead translated as “justicia” or justice in the Bible.  To illustrate, whereas the English version of Luke 23:47 might read, “Certainly this man was righteous,” the Spanish follows thusly: “Realmente, este hombre era justo,” justo meaning just.[xxviii]  And with the emphasis on family, justice in turn is first and foremost seen as a communal matter rather than an individual one.  There is very little room or thought given to the idea of a “private” life.  Justice is chiefly a collective concern.

The complex intermingling of native and Christian religious symbols and rituals have caused problems for Latinos/as, as Protestants claim to have a truer, purer form of Christianity.  In other words, anything not found in the Bible is rejected, or so goes the theory.  Candles, robes, incense, and crucifixes have been seen as unacceptable.  So has at times the practice of wearing black for mourning or of novenas for the dead – the custom of meeting for nine days after someone’s death to remember them and to pray for them.  Pianos, pews, and Christmas trees have always been accepted though – these elements are the valid exceptions.

Pentecostalism has become the second largest religious group in the U.S. of Hispanics after Roman Catholicism.  Countless small independent churches have been formed across the Southwest since the Azusa Street Revival.  Rituals in these immigrant communities often include times for testimonials, healings, prayer to the Holy Spirit and fasting.  In Hispanic worship in general – not just in Pentecostalism specifically – the body is just as important as the soul and the mind.  But because so many ethnic and racial veins run through the blood of Mestizaje identity (indigenous, European, Arabian and even some Asian), the most important elements common to and uniting all Hispanic religion continue to be the Spanish language and cultural tradition itself.


Miguel A. De La Torre and Edwin David Aponte provide a summary of the chief aims for the Hispanic theologian:

Latino/a theology becomes a distinct type of God-talk whose function is (1) to understand the Divine from within the Hispanic cultural location; (2) to seek God’s liberative will in the face of both cultural and economic oppression; (3) to search for a common voice that proclaims salvation, liberation, and reconciliation to the most diverse segments of Latino/a culture; (4) to create theological harmony between the U.S. Hispanic condition and the scriptural narratives; (5) to struggle against the way Latinos/as are perceived and conceived by the dominant culture; and (6) to provide a prophetic voice that unmasks the racism, classism, and sexism implicit in the theology of the dominant white culture.[xxix]

While it may be generally accepted in theory that all theology is done from a particular setting in time and point of view, Latino/a theology, largely in agreement and confluence with liberation theology, fosters a heightened acknowledgement of this reality.  As such, abstract philosophical reflection, though not absent, is definitely reduced or at minimum given a secondary role in the theological methodology.  Embedded within the Hispanic theological outlook is Juan Luis Segundo’s principle of the hermeneutic circle – however implicitly or explicitly – which is partly borrowed from Marxist thought and emphasizes a praxis-based approach to interpreting doctrine and religious ideology.  In this logic known as dialectical materialism, doing theology always starts from a concrete place within a given social stratum fundamentally determined by class.  Moreover, interpretation is considered an on-going process.  Claims to centeredness and objectivity are usually suspect – even if theology in general tends toward this.  One’s subjective position is never wholly transcended.

Whereas mainline Protestantism or European Catholicism might tend to see the role of tradition as one that is implicitly conservative – “harking us back to the church fathers, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and so on” – Hispanics will typically have an increased awareness of “socio-historical realities of the originators of the revered tradition.”[xxx]  Accordingly, tradition from the U.S. Latino/a perspective is one in which the need for constant reformulation and reconstruction is emphasized.  This is taken seriously enough for Luis Pedraja to make the following claim:  “To deny that theology is a product of its cultural context is tantamount to denying the Incarnation and the historicity of Scripture.”[xxxi]

Concerning Scripture itself, Justo Gonzalez has spoken of “Reading the Bible in Spanish” as an especially political and subversive act for Latinos/as.[xxxii]  Using the vernacular automatically hands a certain amount of power over to those on the periphery by giving them the ability to participate.  In particular, however, this extends access to those who typically excluded from biblical scholarship, which is a crucial step.  The exercise of listening to what the voiceless learn from the text henceforth becomes a principle avenue for acquiring new theological insight.

Deeply indebted to Latin American liberation theology, U.S. Latina/o theologians understood theology as “the critical reflection on the praxis” of the people – a praxis that would need to reflect the different sociopolitical, cultural, and historical contexts both explicitly and systematically in U.S. Latino/a communities.[xxxiii]  Consistent with the liberationist heritage then, U.S. Latino/a theology seeks to be a theological task of people – the reality for whom is often one of oppression and marginalization.  If there is a privileged center, it must therefore be one through which the reality of disinheritance can be resisted.[xxxiv]

According to liberation theologians themselves, one finds in the Bible God’s preferential option for poor.  What is more, salvation itself is not something to be seen as solely realized in the future or in the afterlife.  Nor is it restricted to the spiritual realm. Rather salvation is a living and historical reality to be achieved in a community’s present material circumstances.  Relying on Hegelian and Marxist dialectical reading of history, sin is primarily viewed as structural and as having infected the systems and institutions that govern humanity.  Sin conceived of as an impediment for liberation here and now just as much as a hindrance to salvation after death.  Hence, poverty itself must be understood as a scandalous condition and as offensive to God.[xxxv]  Communion with God is breached as long as injustice prevails.  In response, the responsibility of the Church and Christians everywhere must be to work for solidarity with those who are suffering from oppressive systems.  Jesus’s proclamation of the impending Kingdom of God as a reign of justice that brings freedom and good news to the poor, the captives, the blind and lame becomes the hope that energizes a theology of liberation; it is the promise empowers the disenfranchised to be victorious against the slave-driving Pharaoh’s of this world.[xxxvi]

In liberation theology, the starting point is the historical Jesus more so than the christological creeds – though this is not to suggest that the latter is necessarily absent.[xxxvii]  Much of liberation theology has been critical of the established ecclesial orders.[xxxviii]  Juan Luis Segundo voiced his criticism of the church on the grounds that it sought theological unity and the salvation of individual souls over and against any significant effort for socio-economic-political justice.[xxxix]  Archbishop Romero himself echoes this concern: “The church exists to act in solidarity with the hopes and joys, the anxieties and sorrows, of men and women.”[xl]  And as Leonardo Boff argues, “[a]ccording to the parable concerning anonymous Christians in Matt. 25:31-46, the eternal Judge will not ask people about the canons of dogma, nor whether they made any explicit reference to the mystery of Christ while they lived.  He will ask if we have done anything to help those in need.  Here all is decided.”[xli]

Thus there has indeed been an extensive influence exerted upon U.S. Latino/a theology and religion by Latin American Liberation Theology.  Nonetheless, the two cannot be confused.  Hispanics generally have more conservative cultural roots than many of the influential thinkers in the liberation movement.  Social and cultural marginalization for Latinos/as in the U.S. is as significant as poverty and oppression. Hispanic/Latino/a theology has actually forced Latin American Liberation Theology to re-examine itself and confront some of its own lacunas.  For instance, the limited focus on politics and economics excludes cultural, aesthetic, and racial dimensions of society.  It also fails to explore popular religion.  Sexism is also not really addressed.  Pedraja claims for example that using culture and ethnic identity “brings about changes beyond the scope of Latin American Liberation theology with its emphasis on politics and economics.”[xlii]  At the same time, the preference for Latino/a culture in Hispanic theology does not imply an idealization of that identity.[xliii]  Rather, since all cultures and identities are human constructions and as such are imperfect, the selection of one particular community’s perspective makes explicit what is already true of theological projects from any point of view.

Despite the critical distinction made between Latin American liberation theology per se and U.S. Latino/a theologies, Maria Pilar Aquino has tried her hand at combining the two:

The very existence of mestiza theology and economics – liberation, even with its unresolved challenges, comes to demonstrate a collective discomfort with respect to modern white, male, Euro-American culture.  When the current American system declares any alternative dead, thereby destroying any possibility of reaching those alternatives, the Latina communities in the midst of their oppression continue to envision a world in which we all can live.  As long as Latino theology continues to demonstrate its ability to coherently articulate that which we can be, convinced of its possibility, then our task finds its worth and meaning.[xliv]

Aquino envisions the God of the barrio, the God of Jesus the mestizo, and the God of manana

precisely as the God of liberation for Hispanic peoples.  To remember that Jesus too had difficulty finding a place, and that he was born away from home, and that thereafter he was an exile in Egypt is to do theology in the Latino/a way.  For Aquino, Hispanics theologize on behalf of life and liberation and on the side of the poor and oppressed. The on-going reformulation of their very identity depends on this. Social location determines the hermeneutics for interpreting Scripture, and only in view of a qualified reading of history can this be done for Latinos/as. Theirs is a spirituality of hope in the struggle for liberation, and the relationship between theology and pastoral action is direct.  And finally, if there is to be any ecumenism, it starts from the ground up.[xlv]


“All my life I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: To overthrow a labor system that treats farm workers as I they are not important human beings”[xlvi] – Caesar Chavez

In the minds of many U.S. citizens, active memory of both the North and Central American conquests by European ancestors is conspicuously absent.  A disconnect is present between the historical reality of “what land belongs to whom” and “why.”  The manor in which the American historical identity has been transmitted and constructed is forgetful and fanciful – so much so that, as far as many U.S. citizens are concerned, there is only one “America.”[xlvii]  Closely connected with the frontier myth therefore is the myth of an innocent history.  The reason why the United States has refused to hear the truth of its own history is articulated well by Justo Gonzales:

[A]s long as it is innocent of such truth, it does not have to deal with the injustices that lie at the heart of its power and its social order . . . In our country, such guilty innocence is the handmaiden of injustice.  Injustice thrives on the myth that the present order is somehow the result of pure intentions and guiltless history . . . Perhaps once we are agreed that we are all ladrones [thieves], it will be easier for all of us to see much more clearly into issues of justice.[xlviii]

Tying this in with the border issue, Goizueta builds on Gonzalez’s thought as follows:

[L]ate modernity is a world of borders; but, given our history, the profound fear of immigrants reflected in recent legislation suggests that U.S. society continues to view these borders through the lenses of a frontier myth, open to economic expansion but closed to human immigration.  The consequent distortion has devastating consequences, among them the inability to acknowledge historical ambiguity.  Conversely, the Latina/o experience is one that . . . allows for ambiguity and reflects an understanding of the border as a true meeting place, where different cultures interact.[xlix]

Indeed, for many Latinos and Latinas, the border is much more than a place where they live.  The border becomes who they are, as a people whose identity and reality is in between.[l]  To be a border is to live between the rapist and the violated woman and to experience the pain of that tension.[li]

Goizueta is careful to argue, however, that the reason for exposing the lie of an innocent history is not to “ascribe blame to some while exonerating others;” rather it is because by doing so, we will “be able to more effectively bring our future reality into harmony with our national deals.”[lii]  The goal is mutual enrichment.  The borderland cultivates an acknowledgement of all our impurities (against the grain of supposed racial purity).  This is welcomed by Latinos/as, because they know that none of us is pure.[liii]

Virgilio Elizondo shares his own testimony and speaks of the period of time when the person of Jesus the Lord was eclipsed by theory, doctrine, philosophical formulation and theological abstraction.  For Mestizos/as, Jesus is instead a “living person – a friend, an older brother, the “master” who – unlike the masters of this world who abused, exploited, and insulted us – was always solicitous for our welfare and would always be around to help us and comfort us on our way.”[liv]

In the history of Latino/a ecclesial life in the United States, Elizondo observes that the “Euro-American ways of the established church were not he ways of [his] people.  The clergy, religious, and theologians were still foreigners and strangers to our way of life and to our expressions of faith.”[lv]  Elizondo gives account of the deep loneliness that often came with not understanding and not being understood as non-English speaker growing up.  What gives hope to the Mestizo/a situation in particular for Elizondo is a close examination of the socio-cultural person of Jesus himself – one whose earthly identity was as a poor man who showed favor to the lowly and disinherited.  God became a historically, culturally, and racially conditioned human being.[lvi]  As a Jew and a Galilean, Jesus resided in a borderland himself, not unlike the Southwestern United States – almost like being a Mexican-American in Texas.[lvii]  His language and accent probably sounded different from the dominant Latin and Roman Imperial context.    Jesus saw a world where native women were conquered and violated by soldiers.  The scandal of the virgin birth takes on new meaning in light of this.  Elizondo resonates with the migration and social distance that would be the core of Jesus’s daily life.[lviii]  Jesus was an outcast in his own homeland which parallels the experiences of Latinos/as who have been “considered too Mexican by mainline U.S. society, and too ‘gringo’ by families and friends in Mexico.”[lix]  In short, appreciating the fullness of the incarnation enables one to recognize the extent to which Jesus suffered the injustices of our world in much the same respect that many Latinos/as do.

Paul writes of how God was pleased to choose the nothings and foolish things of the world to shame the wise and the strong.  In the same way, Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God and “dares to live what others fear: the joy of common table fellowship with everyone.  By freely eating with everyone, he breaks and challenges all the social taboos that keep people apart.”[lx]  Did this not a major reason for why he was sent him to the cross?

Elizondo understands the liberation that Jesus brings as existential rather than as a strictly universal concept.  It is a tangible liberation that gives inspiration to the hope for what can be: “that the human family might be one, rich in the great diversity of the various nationalities of the world, but no longer divided into enemies, free enough of racial and cultural prejudices of the past to be able to love one another as each is, free enough to learn from one another, free enough to value and respect one another.”[lxi]

Mainstream U.S. culture and political identity seeks to pollute the beauty of Mestizaje, however, with the blinding glamour of abundance.[lxii] Furthermore, a Latino/a theology of liberation would argue that international markets are a far greater destructive force to local identities than immigration could ever be.  In truth, “Americanization” has gained sway in a much more devastating fashion among the youth of Mexico who find the popular cultural and consumerist way of life very appealing.  Regional groups can confront this totalizing, homogenizing energy. The mestizo/a of today provides exactly this oppositional strength when it shows how racial and cultural mixture does not have to work against national identity but can actually enrich it.[lxiii]

U.S. citizens often do not recognize that if it weren’t for the dire material circumstances in which many immigrants find themselves at home – the conditions of which are often a direct result of U.S. corporate and consumer behavior in the first place – the overwhelming percentage of these same immigrants would prefer to stay where they are.  Survival is at stake.  Moreover, the Western version of the path to development, which is regularly imposed upon Latin America through free trade agreements like NAFTA in accordance with the interests of the North, has had all kinds of unintended negative consequences.  The advice of Harold J. Recinos is instructive on this point:

As Latino/a theologians become more focused on the theological analysis of popular piety, it is my hope that they will turn their attention to systematic analysis of the multiple ways in which popular religion for people in structurally and culturally disadvantaged positions use belief systems to construct everyday forms of resistance to political, economic, and theological elites.  This line of research will demonstrate that U.S. Latinos/as are not passive political and religious actors but self-conscious subjects who imagine an alternative social reality, organized with more justice, dignity, freedom, and happiness.[lxiv]

And so it does seem that this would be a worthy job for the Latino/a theologian of the 21st Century.  In return, it also seems only fair and necessary – in order to make a better future – to call upon others to lend an attentive ear.  The popular religion of the Anglo-U.S. population has practically always been both silent and death when it comes to matters of urgent concern for justice.  Whether it’s with regard to the crises of overpopulation of Hispanics in state and federal prisons for non-violent crimes or the exponentially growing death toll in Mexico as a result of the drug trade driven by U.S. demand and consumption – or the many other acute issues facing U.S. Latinos/as in this age – evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics alike are far behind in their organization and activism on behalf of God’s care for the immigrant and minority communities in this country.

The depth, beauty and richness of Latino/a religious and theological identity has only been minimally highlighted here.  To say with Hispanics that the future is truly Mestizaje, a greater appreciation for and solidarity with this people of eclectic culture and a religious mosaic but be cultivated in the minds and hearts of Americans everywhere.  Latino/a scholars of religion continue to do their part, as can be seen here, but the divide between the dominant Euroamerican culture and Mestizo/a American people is still great.  Giving encouragement to other Hispanics in hopes of a brighter tomorrow, Loida I. Martell-Otero offers this word: “There is a particularity of our spirituality which enlivens our life of faith, and therefore our theology.  We have many names for this: our passion, our joy, our deep love for the Lord.  Non-Hispanics are often nonplussed by it . . . Our challenge is to keep the fire of our passion from dying out.  We must continue to think with our hearts and feel with our brains.”[lxv]  May it be as she says.

[i] Jacob Neusner, World Religions in America, Fourth Edition, 4th ed. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 91.

[ii] Ibid., 90.

[iii] Ibid., 91.

[iv] David Tombs, Latin American Liberation Theology (Brill Academic Publishers, 2003), 7.

[v] Luis G. Pedraja, Teologia: An Introduction to Hispanic Theology (Abingdon Press, 2004), 29.

[vi] Miguel A. De LA Torre and Edwin David Aponte, Introducing Latino/a Theologies (Orbis Books, 2001), 30.

[vii] Ibid., 33.

[viii] Pedraja, Teologia, 30.

[ix] Neusner, World Religions in America, Fourth Edition, 89.

[x] Torre and Aponte, Introducing Latino/a Theologies, 50.

[xi] Mar Peter-Raoul, Yearning to Breathe Free: Liberation Theologies in the United States (Orbis Books, 1991), 36.

[xii] Torre and Aponte, Introducing Latino/a Theologies, 45.

[xiii] Neusner, World Religions in America, Fourth Edition, 77.

[xiv] Peter-Raoul, Yearning to Breathe Free, 38.

[xv] Pedraja, Teologia, 21.

[xvi] Nestor Medina and Nstor Medina, Mestizaje: Remapping Race, Culture, and Faith in Latina/O Catholicism (Orbis Books, 2009), xii.

[xvii] Ibid., xiii.

[xviii] Torre and Aponte, Introducing Latino/a Theologies, 26.

[xix] Ibid., 39.

[xx] Ibid., 46.

[xxi] Ibid., 54.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., 59.

[xxiv] Ibid., 58.

[xxv] Ibid., 61.

[xxvi] Ibid., 62.

[xxvii] Ibid., 65.

[xxviii] Ibid., 68.

[xxix] Ibid., 43.

[xxx] Roberto Goizueta, Alvin Padilla, and Eldin Villafañe, Hispanic Christian Thought At the Dawn of the 21st Century: Apuntes in Honor of Justo L. Gonzalez (Abingdon Press, 2005), xii.

[xxxi] Pedraja, Teologia, 22.

[xxxii] Justo L González, Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes Spanish (Abingdon Press, 1996).

[xxxiii] Torre and Aponte, Introducing Latino/a Theologies, 43.

[xxxiv] Medina and Medina, Mestizaje, ix.

[xxxv] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Revised. (Orbis Books, 1988), 40.

[xxxvi] Pedraja, Teologia, 21.

[xxxvii] Jon Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002), 1.

[xxxviii] Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theology (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002), 137.

[xxxix] José; Gonzales Faus, José I. Comblin, Cambio social y pensamiento cristiano en América Latina (Trotta, 1993), 218.

[xl] Alfred T. Hennelly, Liberation Theology: A Documentary History (Orbis Books, 1990), 294.

[xli] Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology for our Time (Orbis Bks, 1978), 95.

[xlii] Pedraja, Teologia, 36.

[xliii] Orlando O. Espin, From the Heart of Our People: Latino/ a Explorations in Catholic Systematic Theology (Orbis Books, 1999), 3.

[xliv] María Pilar Aquino, “Directions and Foundations of Hispanic/Latino Theology : Toward a Mestiza Theology of Liberation.,” Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 1, no. 1 (November 1, 1993): 16.

[xlv] Ibid., 21.

[xlvi] Peter-Raoul, Yearning to Breathe Free, 138.

[xlvii] Roberto S. Goizueta, “Beyond the frontier myth,” in Hispanic Christian thought at the dawn of the 21st century (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 153,

[xlviii] Justo L González, Manana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Abingdon Press, 1990), 39.

[xlix] Goizueta, “Beyond the frontier myth,” 151.

[l] Ibid., 155.

[li] Ibid., 157.

[lii] Ibid., 156.

[liii] Ibid., 158.

[liv] Virgilio P. Elizondo, The Future Is Mestizo: Life Where Cultures Meet, Revised Edition, Rev Sub. (University Press of Colorado, 2000), 69.

[lv] Ibid., 70.

[lvi] Ibid., 76.

[lvii] Ibid., 77.

[lviii] Ibid., 78.

[lix] Virgilio Elizondo, “Jesus the Galiliean Jew in Mestizo Theology,” Theological Studies 70, no. 2 (June 2009): 263.

[lx] Elizondo, The Future Is Mestizo, 83.

[lxi] Ibid., 89.

[lxii] Ibid., 91.

[lxiii] Ibid., 95.

[lxiv] Harold J. Recinos, “Issues in: U.S. Latino/Latina theology,” Quarterly Review 25, no. 3 (Fall  2005 2005): 327.

[lxv] Jose D. Rodriguez and Loida I. Martell-Otero, Teologia en Conjunto, 1st ed. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 158-9.


Aquino, María Pilar. “Directions and Foundations of Hispanic/Latino Theology : Toward a Mestiza Theology of Liberation..” Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 1, no. 1 (November 1, 1993): 5-21.

Boff, Leonardo. Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology for our Time. Orbis Bks, 1978.

Comblin, José; Gonzalez Faus, José I. Cambio social y pensamiento cristiano en América Latina. Trotta, 1993.

Elizondo, Virgilio. “Jesus the Galiliean Jew in Mestizo Theology.” Theological Studies 70, no. 2 (June 2009): 262-280.

Elizondo, Virgilio P. The Future Is Mestizo: Life Where Cultures Meet, Revised Edition. Rev Sub. University Press of Colorado, 2000.

Espin, Orlando O. From the Heart of Our People: Latino/ a Explorations in Catholic Systematic Theology. Orbis Books, 1999.

Goizueta, Roberto, Alvin Padilla, and Eldin Villafañe. Hispanic Christian Thought At the Dawn of the 21st Century: Apuntes in Honor of Justo L. Gonzalez. Abingdon Press, 2005.

Goizueta, Roberto S. “Beyond the frontier myth.” In Hispanic Christian thought at the dawn of the 21st century, 150-158. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005.

González, Justo L. Manana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective. Abingdon Press, 1990.

———. Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes Spanish. Abingdon Press, 1996.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Revised. Orbis Books, 1988.

Hennelly, Alfred T. Liberation Theology: A Documentary History. Orbis Books, 1990.

Medina, Nestor, and Nstor Medina. Mestizaje: Remapping Race, Culture, and Faith in Latina/O Catholicism. Orbis Books, 2009.

Neusner, Jacob. World Religions in America, Fourth Edition. 4th ed. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Pedraja, Luis G. Teologia: An Introduction to Hispanic Theology. Abingdon Press, 2004.

Peter-Raoul, Mar. Yearning to Breathe Free: Liberation Theologies in the United States. Orbis Books, 1991.

Recinos, Harold J. “Issues in: U.S. Latino/Latina theology.” Quarterly Review 25, no. 3 (Fall  2005 2005): 323-330.

Rodriguez, Jose D., and Loida I. Martell-Otero. Teologia en Conjunto. 1st ed. Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

Segundo, Juan Luis. Liberation of Theology. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002.

Sobrino, Jon. Christology at the Crossroads. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002.

Tombs, David. Latin American Liberation Theology. Brill Academic Publishers, 2003.

Torre, Miguel A. De LA, and Edwin David Aponte. Introducing Latino/a Theologies. Orbis Books, 2001.

The Drama of Salvation: The Christological Soteriology of Hans Urs von Balthasar


As arguably the greatest theologian of the 20th century, the Swiss-Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar among many other works has written a sixteen volume systematic theology, consisting of three parts: theo-phany, or aesthetics (the beautiful), theo-praxy, or dramatic theory (the good), and theo-logy, or logic (the true).[i]  Most voluminous in his systematic corpus triforme is the first set, The Glory of the Lord, which is largely an attempt to reincorporate aesthetics into Christian thought by way of reviving beauty and form (gestalt): “Balthasar holds that in the face of death it is impossible to encourage belief unless [humanity] is sustained by the vision of the splendor of the form of Christ.”[ii]

In supposed contradistinction to his predecessors in Bultmann and Barth, von Balthasar seeks to preserve as much the objective (Barth) as the subjective (Bultmann) in his theology.  In doing so von Balthasar labors to integrate both existential subjectivity and revelatory objectivity into faith.  Not surprisingly, von Balthasar is critical of Protestantism in general to an extent, but in particular of Barth’s radical separation of the analogy of faith from the analogy of being, in which at least a faint echo of Kierkegaard’s fideism can be heard[1] (though ultimately von Balthasar will adopt what he calls the “analogy of charity” in his Theo-logic, since being and love for him are coextensive).[iii]

Broadly speaking, much of the rationale for the distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism can be illumined by highlighting the fundamental disagreement concerning natural theology and the doctrine of sin.  In orthodox Catholic fashion, von Balthasar holds the conviction that the natural and supernatural are correlated and that creation is (still) good.  Thus nature is a reliable but not sufficient mediator of truth.  It is sacramental and wondrous in fact, as patristic theology understood, and can be thought of as a vehicle for the divine.[iv]  Reason and revelation are complementarily though not extrinsically related.[v]  Therefore while sin stains and works against the relationship between God and human beings, deafening the ears of humanity to God’s pursuit and latent call, it does not destroy this relationship.  Von Balthasar in this sense maintains that despite its limitations, natural theology is not inherently sinful insofar as it isn’t abused by attempts to grasp or control God.[vi]

Located between the aesthetics and the logic is the theodramatiks, which, though not the most extensive part of von Balthasar’s trilogy, could defensibly be described as the crux of it.  For as Gerard O’Hanlon has astutely put it, “we are asked not only to contemplate Jesus but . . . to follow him.”[vii]  God’s revelation is not just something to be looked at but lived in. “The good has its center of gravity neither in perceiving nor in the uttering: the perception may be beautiful and the utterance true, but only the act can be good.”[viii]  Or as Louis Roberts encapsulates it: “The splendor of the form of Christ can be perceived only by one who is willing to suffer, to take up the cross and lose himself, to forget his selfish needs.  This is the role of the protagonist in a tragedy.”[ix]  As such the aesthetics is a prelude to the main event: the dramatic encounter between infinite and finite freedom via the self-emptying love of God in Christ.[x]  The analogy between finite and infinite freedom makes possible humanity’s sharing and participation in a common history and drama within the Trinity.

The dramatics consists of five volumes, the first of which mostly functions to frame the project in dramatic terms, followed by anthropology (vol. 2), christology (vol. 3), soteriology (vol. 4), eschatology (vol. 5).  Obviously no volume in the triptych is exclusive of or unrelated to the others.  Nicholas J. Healy has argued that the there are three main tensions within which von Balthasar is writing: 1) the eschatological: between over and under-realized, 2) unity and difference in theosis: namely, between the God-world relationship and the divinity-human Christ, and 3) salvation: between the universal and the particular.  This essay focuses mainly on the second and third tensions.

Between Exegesis and Dogmatics

By examining the historical witness of Scripture, it could be said that von Balthasar begins his dramatic soteriology with a christology “from below.”  At a certain point he departs from this perspective, however, and explores whether the subsequent Pauline and Johannine reflections “from above” can corroborate the person and work, or identity and mission, of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Synoptic Gospels.[xi]  After a relatively rigorous engagement with a number of challenges raised by those in the field of historical-critical biblical scholarship (see “The Problem of Method,” Tbeo-drama Vol. 3), von Balthasar observes that the temporal proximity of the Pauline epistles to Jesus’ life – in light of their high regard for the saving significance of the crucified and resurrected Christ of faith – could only make sense if the Jesus of history had possessed and communicated a clear messianic consciousness at an objective level, and one that was at least implicitly eschatological and universal.[xii]  The Triune and incarnational theological developments of the tradition that followed would provide the “deep coherence” necessary for the formulation of systematic thought in the early Christian churches.

The doctrinal formulas of the Councils then were neither abstract philosophical speculations nor faithless empirical records.  Rather, von Balthasar argues that “there exists an analogous transposition of what Jesus said in his parables originally addressing the Jews, because Jesus anticipates and embraces the time of the Church within his own time.”[xiii]  This is what is meant by “continuity in discontinuity”, which is found between the Conciliar Creeds and the Gospel narratives.[xiv]  Furthermore, the traditional dogma itself shines light on certain passages and words of Jesus that would otherwise be extremely difficult to interpret, and does so in a manor that can hardly be dismissed as merely coincidental or convenient.  The seemingly miscalculated apocalyptic prophecy of Mark 13:30 for instance can perhaps be explained by the successive trans-temporal nature of atonement theory, as well as by an immanent, “already but not yet” understanding of the presence of God’s kingdom.  According to von Balthasar, John sees a “mutual interpenetration of realized and futurist eschatology.”[xv]  As such, Jesus appropriately saw “world-time within the entirety and unity of his own destiny” rather than in terms of chronology.[xvi]

Von Balthasar rhetorically raises the question: “Might not Jesus’s consciousness of his mission have been that he had to abolish the world’s estrangement from God in its entirely – that is, to the very end, or in Pauline and Johannine terms, deal with the sin of the whole world?  In that case, after his earthly mission, the decisive and (humanly speaking) immeasurable part was still to come.”[xvii] By this von Balthasar is confident that “[t]here can be no doubt that Jesus was someone indwelt, guided and even ‘driven’ by the Spirit, far surpassing the Old Testament prophets and apocalyptic figures.”[xviii]  The forgiving of sins and Jesus’s “authority” through teaching and healing activity further affirm this divine identity for von Balthasar.  It is important to recognize, however, that von Balthasar does not regard this datum as rational proof for anything about Jesus.  His is by and large not a scientific or even modern venture in the conventional sense.  This is why von Balthasar has been labeled a “transmodernist”[xix] practicing post-critical biblical interpretation.[xx]

There is indeed a plurality of New Testament theologies, as von Balthasar is aware.  In the case of human biographies, no exhaustive presentation can be given of a person’s “total utterance,” however “painstaking and conscientious.”[xxi]  Instead, one can only approach a multifaceted human life by considering a multiplicity of complementary perspectives.[xxii]  What is more, Von Balthasar regards the Hebrew Bible as a testament en route toward incarnation, expressed for the most part within the confines of God’s deeds in Israelite history and in the story of their nation.[xxiii] In sum, there must be a variety of testaments and accentuations, as only a polyvalent structure could give due witness to the fully transcendent idea of the one being proclaimed:

“Diverse theological variants are produced within the sphere of the plenitude of apostolic authority that comes from the exalted Lord.  It is to this apostolic authority that the kerygma (the eyewitness testimony, martyrion) is entrusted, literally ‘surrendered’, in an ‘interplay of obligation and freedom’ . . . Hence we can say that the plurality of perspectives in the New Testament Scriptures mirrors and echoes the Christological fact, which sums up the disparate Old Testament models, subsuming and transcending them in a new synthesis . . . On the other hand, this opening-up of perspectives does not run to infinity; rather, as the period of the canonical Scriptures, it is extensive with the Apostles’ preaching and supervision . . . Prior to and presupposed by all dogmatic theology, a hidden inner unity is present.”[xxiv]

While von Balthasar does not presuppose the veracity of Jesus’ divinity on a metaphysical scale without responding to the critics like Schweitzer, Bultmann, Harnack and others, his reason is informed by the “eyes” or “light” of faith – by an aesthetic receptivity to the beauty of Christ-form at outlined in Seeing the Form.[xxv]

Balthasar intends to give a “portrayal of Christ that neither preempts the action undertaken by him nor falls back into the kind of purely extrahistorical, static, ‘essence’ Christology that sees itself as a complete and round ‘part one’, smoothly unfolding into a soteriological ‘part two.’”[xxvi]  With respect to the two parts – which comprise the topic of this essay – the predominant or primary question nonetheless is not “who is Christ?” for von Balthasar, but “what does Christ accomplish?”.  The answer to the latter will necessitate meaning for the former.  At the same time, there is a mutually reinforcing relationship, and the act of Christ can be equated with person of Christ in many cases, but the economy and history, or, the action of salvation takes primacy in the theo-drama.


Trinity and Incarnation

This basic formula of the analogia entis is also the ultimate foundation of our Christian theological dramatic theory, just as it has its concrete center in the Chalcedonian “unconfused and indivisible” . . . two natures in Christ.  This means that we can speak concretely of theosis only in the context of Christology: it presupposes the no less mysterious possibility of the Incarnation of God.[xxvii]

In order to substantiate such a drama wherein both the triune God in Christ and humanity maintain agency – each in accordance with the adequate degree of finite and infinite freedom – two doctrines are of supreme importance, and each one underpins the other.  In the first place, the hypostatic union or the divine consubstantiation with humanity through the incarnation is necessary for Jesus to have born and carried the sin of the world.  No mere human being could ever do this or serve as the universal representative for all others.  Von Balthasar is even so bold as to allege that after the incarnation, “the Father has nothing further to communicate to the world, in the present aeon nor in the aeon to come.”[xxviii]  “As Irenaeus often repeats,” von Balthasar declares, “the Son is the visibleness of the Invisible One, and this paradox remains the non plus ultra of revelation.”[xxix]  At the same time, this revelation remains incalculably mysterious.  In his book The Divine Image, Ian McFarland echoes von Balthasar and his reliance of Maximus the Confessor, stating that the more visible and comprehensible Christ becomes through the incarnation, the more he is known to be incomprehensible.[xxx]

More concretely, however, the incarnation is what allows God the Father to have solidarity with and save every sinful conscious subject that answers ‘Yes’ to the divine beckoning. Without a share in the human nature of Christ, God remains an observer and is otherwise unaffected by the drama, leaving the forgiveness of sin unauthorized.  Because of the fusion of two natures (though they do not become indistinguishable) in one person, Christ is representative at once of humanity and the Source to which humanity’s owes its being.

In the second place, the coming of God in the form of a human being reveals something about the internal relationship within the Godhead.[xxxi]  Combined with the extension into world time through the covenant theology of both Covenants (with Israel and the Church), Jesus’s resurrection and the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost form the entire backdrop of the Trinity.[xxxii]  And von Balthasar sees the cross as the ever-present presupposition of the Trinity, so again there is a mutually constitutive relationship held between these doctrines:

This divine act that brings forth the Son, that is, the second way of participating in (and of being) the identical Godhead, involves the positing of an absolute, infinite “distance” that can contain and embrace all the other distances that are possible within the world of finitude, including the distance of sin.  Inherent in the Father’s love is an absolute renunciation: he will not be God for himself alone.  He lets go of his divinity and, in this sense, manifests a (divine) God-lessness (of love, of course) . . . The Son’s answer to the gift of Godhead (of equal substance with the Father) can only be eternal thanksgiving (eucharistia) to the Father, the Source –a thanksgiving as selfless and unreserved as the Father’s original self-surrender.  Proceeding from both, as their subsistent “We”, there breathes the “Spirit” who is common to both: as the essence of love, he maintains the infinite difference between them, seals it and, sine he is the one Spirit of them both, bridges it.[xxxiii]

The soteriology of von Balthasar’s Trinitarian theology is profoundly significant, for only the triune God can genuinely be a dramatic participant on the world stage.  The sin of the world is transposed into the “unholy distance” created by the Son, then overcome and transcended by God through the Spirit.[xxxiv]  The conjoining and interdependency of the two doctrines (Trinity and incarnation) is what actualizes the absorption of sin and the succeeding redemption of humanity.

Christology: Mission and Person

Von Balthasar’s point of departure must be Jesus’s will to live as a servant, as the slave of all (Mark 10:45, Luke 22:27), following his own commandment by humbling himself (Matt 23:12), losing his life (Matt 10:39), and giving it up (Mark 10:45, John 10:17).  Christ takes on a “descending” attitude and gives human beings an existential example (Phil 2:8).[xxxv]  Further, Christ parallels Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, but in his latent universalism moves from Israel to ta ethne (the nations):[xxxvi] “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28).  Von Balthasar underscores Jesus’s explicit awareness of being sent and his knowledge of the one who sent him (Luke 4:43; 10:16; 20:13; Matt 15:24; 21:37; Mark 12:16), as well as of the kingdom “coming” and as “having come” (Mark 1:38).  The Johannine metaphors are instructive here:  Christ as “divine light and life” (John 1:9; 3:19; 10:10), and the commissioning by the Father is abundantly overt – the profession to have come from and in the name of the Father (John 5:43; 8:42; 16:28):

“In these Johannine ‘sending’ formulas, the uniqueness of the person of Jesus is expressed through a twofold uniqueness: that is, his Trinitarian relationship to the Father and the soteriological goal of his mission.  Nor are these factors merely juxtaposed: the intimate relationship between the One sent and the One who sends him takes the form of obedience within the Father’s act of surrender.  The Father is the One who sends, and in this act of sending he establishes, guides, and takes responsibility for Jesus’ whole existence on earth; he lays down the latter’s purpose right from the start, namely, the salvation of the world (John 3:17; 6:39).”[xxxvii]

Christ’s putting on of flesh encompasses perfect freedom and absolute obedience so that the Son can be the perfect image of the Father: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).[xxxviii]

Christ’s “missio” is the guiding principle of von Balthasar’s christology – a christology of consciousness and of being.  Christ’s consciousness implies both the work and the person, and the identification of the person is what satisfies the “theodramatic requirement.”[xxxix] Christ’s role therefore is active and his person ontological.  His conscious subject is equivalent to the divine mission.[xl]  God has actually appeared in the play, on stage, in Christ the incarnate Son, and without evacuating his place as the sovereign One and as Judge; that is, God becomes immanent without foregoing transcendence.  External or neutral contemplation cannot grasp this truth.  In order to see, “we must have been admitted to the sphere of the Holy Spirit, that holy intimacy between Father and Son.”[xli]


“And so it was that two marvels came to pass at once, that the death of all was accomplished in the Lord’s body, and that death and corruption were wholly done away by reason of the Word that was united with it.  For there was need of death, and death must needs be suffered on behalf of all, that the debt owing from all might be paid.  Whence . . . the Word, since it was not possible for Him to die, as He was immortal, took to Himself a body such as could die, that He might offer it as His own in the stead of all, and as suffering, through His union with it, on behalf of all . . . and might deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage . . . [b]y his death has salvation come to all, and all creation been ransomed.  He is the Life of all, and He it is that as a sheep yielded His body to death as a substitute, for the salvation of all . . .” (para. 20, 5-6; 37, 7) – Athanasius of Alexandria

Indispensable to dramatic soteriology for von Balthasar are five major aspects.  First, Christ gives himself through God the Father for the salvation of the world.  This act occurs both as free self-surrender and absolute obedience to the Father’s will.  Secondly,  the “Sinless One” takes the place of sinners in an exchange.  Third, humanity is freed, ransomed, redeemed, and released as a consequence of this substitution.  More than this, however, humanity is elevated and enabled to participate in the divine life as a result of this newfound freedom.  And finally, the entire sequence must be understood as instigated by divine love.[xlii]

In von Balthasar’s view, the Church Fathers were able to contemplate with profundity the notion of theosis, or divinization, which corresponds closely to the fourth point above, making possible the attachment to or participation in God’s being as a result of having been ransomed, redeemed, and freed from “the powers.”  What is not taken far enough according to Balthasar, however, is the second step – namely, exchange.  While there is definitely an appreciation for Christ’s function as the one who takes away the sins of the world and suffers the consequences of this sin, the early Church was unable to conceive of Christ’s direct identification with the sinfulness of humanity as such.  In fact it wasn’t until Luther, von Balthasar argues, that Christ’s atonement for sin was properly thought of as having thoroughly become sin itself on humanity’s behalf.  Anselm in particular for Balthasar, though he put more weight on the idea of Christ’s surrender and self-sacrifice, likewise devalues the function of Christ’s substitution by reducing it to a merited payment due to the “guiltless credit” earned before God.  Hence in Christ “satisfaction” is offered for humanity’s sin in Anselm’s model, but identification with sin itself is not sufficiently developed:

What is lacking is the link with the Son’s Trinitarian missio, his “sending” by the Father on the basis of his processio.  Thus Anselm cannot explain why Jesus’ obedience is addressed emphatically to the Father rather than to the whole Trinity.  What is also missing is the organic connection between Christ and all other human beings, which is established by the Incarnation and on which the Fathers lay such stress.  The fact that Christ is the New Adam, possessing the gratia capitis, is more assumed than declared.[xliii]

As this “new Adam,” Christ’s accomplishment is less than dramatic if only an external “work” with the right ontic or judicial dignity.[xliv]  For von Balthasar, the crucial question is this: “How internal is this role-playing in the suffering Christ, and how far does he identify himself with the role?”[xlv]  Even Saint Thomas falls short of a thoroughly dramatic soteriology in von Balthasar’s view.  Despite having contemplated Christ’s suffering in more depth than Anselm, the “satisfaction” theory dominates, and representation or substitution is fairly peripheral in Thomas.  And while Luther rightly accentuates substitution, does he not simultaneously deemphasize exactly what the Fathers stressed so well – namely, humanity’s becoming and actualization in the divine life, or theosis?  Moreover, Luther intensifies the necessity for the punishment of sin by underlining the redemptive quality of Christ’s death as an innocent victim.  Here Balthasar is hesitant and wonders whether Luther, with a concentration on the penal nature of substitution and sacrifice,  has compromised God’s love, which is supposed to undergird the entire process.

Although von Balthasar wishes to retain Anslem’s two postulates – “that is, death must be unmerited and undergone by a person of the highest dignity; and it must contain an element of infinite pain, which alone can purge and destroy the monstrous quality of the world’s guilt” – this isn’t enough.  Christ must bear the weight of this guilt.  At the same time, purging and destroying sin takes precedence over punishing it, just as in Anselm.

Then there are those like Pannenberg and Rene Girard (though their respective positions are quite disparate concerning atonement in general) who suggest that it was not God but humanity who cast sin onto the Lamb of God.[xlvi] The problem in this case from von Balthasar’s view is that humanity becomes the initiator of its own redemption, rather than it being God’s own enactment. Other Protestant liberal christologies also like to put emphasis on Jesus’s solidarity as expressed in his life of fellowship with the poor, sinners, and the marginalized, but these perspectives see the cross as “nothing more than the ultimate consequence of this ‘social’ solidarity.”[xlvii] So while the Son dies “because of sin”, at a deeper level he dies “because of God”, because “God has definitively rejected what cannot be reconciled with the divine nature.”[xlviii]

Conversely von Balthasar is unsatisfied with Rahner’s portrayal for the opposite reason.  In Rahner’s formal depiction, God’s activity in the drama is consigned too closely to that of a spectator instead of a self-giver.  On the other hand, von Balthasar strives to avoid relegating humanity’s role to one of strictly inactive passivity.  Some measure of finite freedom must be preserved and not eradicated or completely perverted by sin so that a genuinely dramatic creaturely interplay can be performed.  That is, subjectivity still matters in spite of humanity’s utter dependency on God for mercy and forgiveness.  In summation, for atonement both the substitutionary (or representative) side, which is objective and beyond sheer moral influence, and the participatory side, which invokes the human and subjective activity, are required.[xlix]  Whether this is compatible with the Reformation doctrine of sola fide and sola gratia as Luther intended it would be another focal inquiry.

The “Momentum of the Cross” and “Christ’s ‘Descent’ into Hell

“There was a cross in the heart of God before there was a cross on the hill of Calvary.”Horace Bushnell

“The bifurcation in God must contain within it the whole turmoil of history.”[l] – Jurgen Moltman

Sheol is understood by von Balthasar simply as the state of separation from (the glory of) God.[li]  The difference between sheol and hell after the New Covenant is not unlike the distinction now made between hell and purgatory.  Hell is the fate of those who recognize the vicarious deed of God both consciously reject it, but purgatory “must be a possibility for humanity, inasmuch as, through the vicarious suffering of lostness, an impulse of mercy has been commingled with the eschatological ‘fire’ of God that tests people” (1 Cor 3:12, and Origen).[lii]  Heaven on the other hand is a possibility because of Christ’s pending return.  Through the lens of the New Testament, since both “paradise” and “Gehenna” remain polyvalent, von Balthasar says they only receive their “theological unequivocalness” through the event of Holy Saturday.[liii]

The momentum of the cross, powered by Jesus’s authority, obedience, self-abandonment and poverty carries over to the descent into hell and the annihilation of the last enemy, which is death (1 Cor 15:26).  This is what von Balthasar calls the place of the lowest rung on the “ladder of obedience.”[liv]  All have sinned, are guilty, and have lost the glory of God (Rom 3:23).  Christ’s poverty and self-abandonment (kenosis) constitute the bearing of the sin of the world, but this is only the first of two essential acts.  The second is accomplished through “solidarity with the death that is the lot of all.”[lv]  Because of the incarnation, the “journey to the dead” (Thomas) is an implicit consequence of the cross event.[lvi]  Von Balthasar contests that Jesus carries the Father’s saving will to this point as the “crushed sufferer” (Isaiah 53:10) quite passively.  This claim runs somewhat contrary the traditional one, which instead concentrates on the active conquering by Jesus of the gates of hell, and without much struggle.  Alyssa Pitstick draws attention to this and points out that in the classical account, Jesus did not “suffer” in hell.[lvii]  For von Balthasar, however, Jesus must have assumed the absolute nature of this extreme condition, which entails not triumph but almost lifeless “sinking down.”[lviii]  Furthermore, those like Edward Oates defend that von Balthasar’s Holy Saturday reflection, grounded in the Apostle’s Creed, meets the criteria for acceptable theological development and innovation.  Paul Griffiths also criticizes Pitstick for classifying von Balthasar’s inventive study outside of the orthodox vein.[lix]

In the wake of Nicholas of Cusa, von Balthasar speaks of the “interior view of death” and reiterates that the suffering of Christ is “the greatest that can be thought of.”[lx] At the same time, von Balthasar also says that Jesus becomes the “judge who has measured out all the dimensions of [humanity] in its own experience, and can assign to each [human being her] lot eschatologically.”[lxi]  So the descent into hell and solidarity with the dead is of course not ultimately devoid of victory – “death is swallowed up” (1 Cor 15:54; 2 Cor 5:4).[lxii]

Calvin stresses humanity’s justification by obedience as well, but fails to unite Jesus’ suffering with the Father’s love: “In Calvin, moreover, the ‘brackets’ of the trinitarian love are lost to sight, so that the idea of the ‘severe vengeance of God’ (divinae ultionis severitas) takes on one-sided prominence.”[lxiii] Again in a Cusanian reading, von Balthasar prefers to proclaim Christ’s absolute obedience as the key christological concept within the broader trinitarian context.  This does not ignore, however, that Christ absorbs the wrath of God into the realm of grace as a consequence of sin, but the latter process must be reconciled with the “proclamation made to the world of God’s disposition of love.”[lxiv]

Subjectively, Jesus earnestly cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And yet objectively, this feeling and experience of unreserved anguish is redemptive, because in Christ the culprits have a representative before the Judge.  As Christ takes sin up into the ‘trinitarian fellowship’, the sinners’ ‘No’ to God is transfigured. [lxv]  The contradiction in God created by sin is resolved on account of Christ’s self-abandonment.  God’s anger is countered by the Son’s love that willingly exposes itself to such torment, disarming it and “literally depriving it of its object.”[lxvi]  God’s wrath toward humanity for its rejection of God is dissolved by a divine love that is more abundant than God’s wrath.

Christ’s mediation and representation occurs within the Trinity itself, not externally to it – despite the apparent irreconcilable conflict caused by the sin it subsumes.  In this way it is reasonable to assert that in the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the triune God is engaged on humanity’s behalf.[lxvii]  What’s more, in view of this multi-layered and triune atonement, the concept of substitution need not “stand or fall” with the ancient sacrificial system.[lxviii]

The God-world Relationship

In short, Balthasar is traversing the razor’s edge between demoting God’s involvement in the economy of salvation to the plane of world entanglement and tragic mythology on the one hand (of which he believes Hegel and Whitehead to be guilty, and even Moltmann to an extent – God doesn’t “need” the cross or the process of self-surrender in other words) and over-negating or mystifying any awareness of this involvement to the realm of static, obstinate dualism and detachment on the other.  Whether von Balthasar succeeds in walking this fine line will be a pertinent question.  Can God the Father in “uttering and surrendering himself without reserve,” not lose himself?[lxix]  Does God not extinguish herself in kenosis, or does this demonstrate an even more unfathomable love and omnipotence, as von Balthasar would have it?  He contends that God’s sovereignty paradoxically situates God above the need to dominate or use coercion and violence, such that even when confronted by God, humanity is not overwhelmed to the point of forfeiting volition.[lxx]  In this way von Balthasar draws on the Augustinian idea, insisting that finite freedom can only find its fulfillment in infinite freedom.[lxxi]  This is what leads Thomas to later say that “the nearer (vicinior) a free nature stands to God, the more it is able to move itself.”[lxxii]

As a result of what von Bathasar imagines in the above Trinitarian description, the substitution or “exchange of place” can ultimately be grounded in the immanent Trinity; hence God is not unmoved by the event of the cross.[lxxiii] Most interestingly perhaps, and to which was alluded above, the concept of punishment or sacrifice is not prevalent in von Balthasar’s language.  Accordingly, deeming the exchange as a “payment for sin” is somewhat precluded and does not adequately capture the character of the atonement for von Balthasar.  Though Christ atones for the guilt of humanity’s sin, like the Thomistic and classical position has always said, one must be open to the possibility that God could have redeemed humanity in other way, and this is no minor stipulation.

Yet von Balthasar goes a step further.  He submits that the sufferings of Christ are far greater than all possible sufferings caused by sin, so that it is the freely chosen, immeasurable quality of torment that generates the highest possible display of God’s love for and solidarity with humanity.  This gives another plausible reason for Christ’s death without subtracting its ontological and soteriological significance.  Still, one way or another, sin has to be overcome, vanquished – and its severity and divisiveness ought not be downplayed – but the essence of atonement is illuminated for von Balthasar more by God’s desire for reconciled relationship with creation than by the requisite to penalize people for sin.

Dramatic Anthropology

“Only a fool can hope for ultimate fulfillment in this world – and, as for penultimate hopes, we are not concerned with them here.  In other words, even the Old Testament Messianic hope in the future is self-contradictory unless it opens out to a victory over death (both the death of the individual and the death of the world as a whole), to a ‘resurrection from the dead’ . . . Only on the basis of his Resurrection does he show that he has “‘overcome the world’” (John 16:33).[lxxiv]

Humanity is characterized as “the meeting point of many conflicting forces”: human beings are aware of their shortcomings and limited achievement while also being driven by unlimited longings.[lxxv]  More than this, human beings can know their sinfulness and the obstruction to full finite freedom that this sinfulness causes. This is what Paul describes as “finding himself doing things he wishes he did not do.”[lxxvi] Accordingly, human existence is described as a battlefield: “Man therefore is divided in himself.  As a result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness.”  The tragedy is that human beings find themselves “unable to overcome the assaults of evil” and so feel “bound by chains – despite the universal aspiration for freedom and justice that is stronger now than ever before.”[lxxvii]

This bondage and preceding talk of the Son’s all-embracing obedience to the point of death on the cross begs the question of how human beings can be liberated to live presently as dynamic characters in the drama.  To address this, von Balthasar reminds that the definitive event of Christ’s death and resurrection is being “continually rendered concrete from below, as it were, by continued sin: it is continually being implanted from above into all times, in the sacrament instituted by Christ” (referring to Baptism and the Eucharist).[lxxviii] God’s grace is ministered through these sacraments in order to resolve the ontic problem of the God/creature relationship.[lxxix] Christians are hereby empowered to live in the sphere of en Christoi, which includes the risen Christ of faith as well as the historical Jesus, who “recapitulates in himself everything earthly.”[lxxx] This provocative claim summons the whole world.[lxxxi] In his outline of von Balthasar, Kevin Mongrain asserts that this “participation in the paschal mystery . . . liberates humanity from despair and/or fatalism, thereby enabling it definitely to reject all human-made utopias in the name of alternative “utopian hope” based in the memory of Christ’s death and resurrection.”[lxxxii]  Additionally, in contrast to some forms of Eastern religions or even certain negative, mystical, or apophatic Christian traditions, this participation does not erase or diminish the identity of individuals.[lxxxiii]

Thus, the personal mission of Christ can be imitated by those who are called in him to participate in his drama.[lxxxiv]  O’Hanlon summarizes it this way: “The dramatic notion of role becomes identified with the theological notion of mission – we as human beings have a role within the divine drama by becoming persons, which we do in answering our mission as beings called and sent by God” (emphasis added).[lxxxv] Von Balthasar elucidates this calling himself with allusion to the posture of prayer: “The great ‘Watch and pray!’ in which the Synoptic Gospels end, is a call to enter into the fundamental attitude of Christ.”[lxxxvi] This relationship with the person of Christ is that through which humanity is drawn into the Father.  Hence the human struggle with evil affects the very inner life of God.

The “Pain” of God

In von Balthasar’s estimation, God takes a risk with this act, and “something in God can develop into suffering.”[lxxxvii] These are no small claims, and despite his commitment to the classical tradition and aversion to certain contemporary anthropomorphic tendencies, such language goes against the grain of traditional theology.  Qualification is added in that “the divine is not so interwoven in the drama of history that the conclusion of the struggle is uncertain; but the divine is also not elevated beyond the world so that whoever will assume the standpoint of God must elevate himself beyond the dramatic into epic distance.”[lxxxviii]  Whether such imagery and necessarily human language warrants von Balthasar’s theo-logical conclusions, the theophanies of the Hebrew Bible certainly lend support:[lxxxix] “The Old Covenant spoke of God’s ‘bowels’ (rachamin) trembling with compassionate love: this is precisely what is revealed to the world when the Father surrenders all his love, embodied in the Son.”[xc]

Traditionally, God is both immutable and (in the Son) mutable.[xci] Von Balthasar makes reference to Ignatius who speaks of “the impassible one who suffers for us.”  And relying on Gregory of Nyssa, von Balthasar explicates that “If God wishes to save [humanity] by freely choosing suffering, [God] suffers impassibly; [and] since [God] suffers freely, [God] is not subject to suffering but superior to it.”[xcii]  Presumably then, what Christ takes upon himself, without sin or inclination to sin, is the healing of humanity’s fallenness from within.  This indicates the tension in God between apatheia and pathos, though von Balthasar cautions that these attributes should only be associated with God whilst keeping in mind the incomprehensibility of God and the break along the ontological continuum.

But von Balthasar also argues that the Fathers stressed apatheia mostly because of the way that the Greeks understood it – as mythological.[xciii]  Hence he seems to be saying that attributing apatheia to the classical conception of God is in danger of approaching a misinterpretation.  Of course von Balthasar is careful to ensure that “there can be no pathos in God if by this we mean some involuntary influence from outside.”[xciv]  So it is never that God’s essence changes, “but that the unchangeable God enters into a relationship with creaturely reality, and this relationship imparts a new look to his internal relations.”[xcv] So while God does not change in any univocal sense, this interaction does demonstrate the great extent to which the destiny of the world is a concern for God.

 A Theology of Liberation?

For the criticism and controversy surrounding liberation theology, coming from the Vatican and European Catholicism in particular, von Balthasar has a surprising amount of appreciation for the urgency evoked by liberation theology.  He concedes extensively with this rather astounding statement: “since this appeal to Christians, this summoning of their crucial, world-transforming cooperation, is at the heart of Christianity, [liberation theology] reveals the dramatic situation of the Christian in this world as perhaps nothing else does.”[xcvi]

Pointing to the example of Paul as one who “earned his keep” and said that anyone who does not work should not eat (2 Th. 3:10), von Balthasar sympathetically acknowledges that organizations of “human toil” can nonetheless operate to gain power at the expensive of workers for the benefit of owners, at which point working for sheer survival would no longer be a viable option:

Whether this domination aims at “boundless affluence or the boundless stockpiling of arms” does not particularly matter . . .in either case, the threshhold has been crossed to a purpose that is immoral because it is inhuman.  The inhuman aspect is immediately seen in the exploitation no the workers, who are regarded and treated as mere means to power.  Clearly, the Christian must throw himself into the to cogs of this pitiless machinery and, as the Pastoral Constitution tirelessly insists, urge the human proportions (which he has discerned in Jesus Christ) against the twofold disproportions of excessive power (in affluence and imperialism) and powerlessness (in poverty).[xcvii]

One could almost mistake this passage for words that came from Gustavo Guitierrez himself.

Nevertheless, von Balthasar remains concerned that liberation theology’s “greatest danger lies in its tendency to link together the relationships of the first and Second Adam, earthly action and the kingdom that comes down from God, within a single system or overview; in doing so, it succumbs in a new way to theological rationalism.”[xcviii] Von Balthasar elaborates by stating that while “we have a strict Christian duty to fight for social justice on behalf of the poor and oppressed,” the boundaries of the use of force for realizing political change are not easily identified.[xcix]  He argues that even Jesus’s “cleansing” of the Temple is no justification for Christians to behave coercively.  Can agape, which endures all things, be applied as a tactical instrument for the attainment of political goals?[c]  Von Balthasar asks, would this not be a manipulation of divine virtue?  Yahweh’s “holy” wars in the Hebrew Bible are equally unfitting as an illustration and are at best typoi or anticipations.

Though the ‘politics of the cross’ may be become a mere partial ingredient in overall political calculations as the practicality of earthy justice, the state can never be “theologized”, even if God has instituted it for the purpose of order and finite justice (Rom 13).[ci]  At most the “Christian can try to exercise influence in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount,” for at the point that the political sphere is breached, it becomes a question of how this approach can be imposed on multitudes of people.  In spite of his expressed sympathies then, in von Balthasar’s total response he comes close to basically consigning the Christian politic to either martyrdom or the monastery.  It is not difficult to imagine how those living in destitution might reply.  As Joerg Rieger has poignantly observed, the question of “who benefits?” materially from a given approach to theology should be given serious consideration.[cii]  But to fairly summarize, von Balthasar simply believes that “all intermediate zones, in spite of their urgency,” can only be relative insofar as they have “political and economic liberation in the foreground.”[ciii]  Ultimately, “liberation movements merit theological credentials only if they are carried on within the horizon of that ultimate liberation won by Christ and for him.”[civ]


As one commentator wisely disclaimed, pretending to probe and challenge a theologian of this stature might be akin to a “fly trying to show an elephant to visitors to the zoo – the fly keeps getting whisked off the immense corpus.”[cv]  With that said, any theological treatise as vast and sophisticated on von Balthasar’s can hardly avoid creative and at least partially novel features, and no “new” claim about a two-thousand-year-old tradition is exempt from scrutiny.  Who should be the one to bring the scrutiny is the better question, and for this reason some dependence on the inspection by others is obligatory.  I will, however, include a modest dose of my own deflection.

First, despite his otherwise critical tone toward Hegel, von Balthasar appears to envisage a change in the Son and therefore in the Trinity that is brought about by the total abandonment and emptying that realizes salvation for humanity and the world.  This is also where expressions like God’s “risk” and talk of God “giving himself away” is used.  Ben Quash has interestingly contended that Hegel and von Balthasar both designed their aesthetic projects in such a way “that all lines converge on drama as a consummate form of artistic expression.”[cvi]  Both of them also choose the literary method of “drama” as opposed to “lyric” or “epic”; “‘epic’ is modern realism devoid of awe and reverence while ‘lyric’ is artful romanticism remote from reality.”[cvii] Is it not feasible then that attributing the unstable quality inherent in “drama” to God does more (or less) than merely enhance or enrich the portrayal of God as found in Scripture and the whole tradition?  Doubtless von Balthasar is enlisting such a description for the purpose of depicting a more vivified and suspenseful scene, and this may be where the notion of drama as the overarching framework falls short of faithfulness to the very ontological gap between humanity and God that he is determined to protect.  In this regard, it is hard to see how von Balthasar doesn’t recommit Moltmann’s “sin”, albeit is a more subtle way.

Concerning Christ’s descent, his absolute torment and debasement in hell renders conditional the state of all person’s condemned status.  Though he has been suspected of positing some kind of grounds here for universal salvation, von Balthasar refuses to make any pronouncements about the eschatological outcome for anyone.[cviii]  With the instigation and conversion of sheol into purgatory, however, it is difficult to imagine how he does not eventually envision that all could be saved, and he has certainly expressed hope for so much.[cix]  This is more of an observation than a criticism, however.  In my judgment there is no fault in hoping that God will redeem and reconcile all things.

But about Jesus’s experience in hell, does von Balthasar speculate too much or exaggerate the enormous quality of Christ’s suffering?  What is the basis for this preoccupation if not mild sadism?  Is it not enough that the Son of God would become human and die this humiliating death that many other “nonpersons” – rejects of the imperial rule – had to endure?  Surely the patristic emphasis on victory over death and “the powers” was no mere coincidence.  Solidarity is unquestionably essential for atonement, but defeat of this systemic and institutional sin of the world is no less imperative if Jesus is Lord and if the Kingdom of God is at hand, as Christ taught.

Even more pressing is a question raised by Steffen Losel and Frances Fiorenza, along with a host of others: where is the mentioning of suffering on behalf of victims rather than just perpetrators?[cx]  Love as self-surrender and obedience on behalf of guilty sinners – this is unevenly weighted.  Cannot God’s love be thought of just as much in terms of God’s compassion for the victimized?  No doubt von Balthasar’s account of the atonement has recourse to this – and solidarity with the suffering is by no means an absent theme[2] – but this exact dimension of reconciliation for victims as such, and historically speaking, is at most an addendum.  The point here is that self-sacrifice and obedience might be the most valuable expressions of the Christian life for some, but not necessarily for others – others like the masses of abused and defeated peoples.[cxi]

It is not just that substitution for sin is carried out in atonement, or even that human deification is prompted, but equally that the very structures and systems that devise the death machine of the Roman Imperial expansion are criticized. The cross inverts and reveals the dark underbelly of the “pax romana” perjury.  What better denouncement of violence and subjugation than the demonstration of power over death resounded by the resurrection?  The cross must appeal and plead to sufferers, calling on them to forgive.  On the other hand the cross convicts and summons tyrants to repentance.  Thirdly, the sins of all are taken up by the sacrifice to end all sacrifices (Heb 10).[cxii]  Korean theologian Andrew Sung Park has also presented a triune atonement model that opts largely for the restoration of victims’ dignity in a non-retributive manor.[cxiii]  Park includes in his reflection the atonement for the forgiveness of the oppressors, but the nonviolent emphasis would likely pose problems for scrupulous harmony and continuity with the tradition.  The problem of nonviolence notwithstanding, however, his is an apposite example of an atonement theory with historical consciousness.

This should be a concern not just for feminists and liberation theologians, but anyone wanting to apply theological reflection to the realm of history with all of its dialectical oppositions, which are all the more acute in the age of globalization.[3]  This criticism is by no means novel and by now is widespread, but just the same it should be mentioned.  It is not that von Balthasar overlooks the social and the communal so much as the historical.  His interpretation of trinitarian and christological love is danger of functioning “to reinforce passive acceptance rather than active resistance to oppression and abuse,” signaling that the Christian life consists exclusively in submission to God and “obedience to the church (as the institution through which the Holy Spirit speaks).”[cxiv]

With respect to John 14:6 and the claim that “no one comes to the Father except by me”, von Balthasar concedes with the rest of Christian inclusivists that “this is not to deny the ultimate salvation of all who do not know him and adhere to other religions.”  On the other hand, von Balthasar maintains that other religions do not mediate salvation – only Christ can do this.[cxv] (He also makes no distinction between the various salvations that are sought by the world religions.) This position is a slightly more restrictive and conservative take on theology of religious pluralism than one finds in Rahner or Kung, for instance, and certainly more so than what would satisfy many interreligious theologians today.  Nonetheless, von Balthasar does at least leave room for the salvation of any non-Christian, and since it is not the task of this essay to explore the merit of von Balthasar’s theology of religions, further questions here will be put aside.[4]  It may also be that von Balthasar’s aesthetics in itself is an apologetic for Christian truth:  “The whole mystery of Christianity,” he says – “that which distinguishes it radically from every other religious project, is that the form does not stand in opposition to infinite light, for the reason that God has himself instituted and confirmed such a form.”[cxvi]  Even still, this belief relies heavily on a revelation that is not equally available to everyone.  For a genuinely dramatic theology, that indeed is intended to include the stage of the whole world, it would surely seem like further reflection is needful with regard to how exactly Christ’s atonement might be mediated in other faith traditions, and to what extent these faith traditions themselves have intrinsic salvific value for their own hopes and soteriological aspirations.[5]  Any thought experiment along these lines must be carried out in the utmost humility, however, with care not to take for granted any special insight into “things too wonderful” (Psalm 131).

As Pannenberg prudently instructed, in systematic theology “we keep in view the plurality and debatability of all religious truth claims.”[cxvii] One must deal with the correctness of Christian truth claims as open ones.  Even more sobering is the reality that for many people “it is by no means self-evident today that the truth claims of Christian doctrine may even be regarded as open” in the first place.[cxviii] At the same time, what von Balthasar does provide is one of the most impressive and integrative presentations conceivable as regards the Christian revelation, its heritage of interpretation, and the view of God therein with respect to humanity and the world – all with the best reason and resources available.  The product as it concerns salvation is a hope-filled assurance and inspiration to all who wonder about God’s distance from creation, care for it, and involvement in redemption through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In this account, God’s solidarity with sinners in the face of death – humanity’s greatest enemy – is firmly established.  Though the more historico-liberative aspect of this redemption story might be wanting, the trinitarian and representative potential is ripe for further development and reflection to be taken up.  The retrieval of the aesthetic and the dramatic, as well as the classical – going against the modern flow of thought – makes for a masterful outcome that theologians will need to wrestle with for decades and perhaps even centuries to come.

[1] the sharp divide between their “subjective” (Kierkegaard) and “objective” (Barth) faiths notwithstanding

[2] An example would be the following: The posture of “serenity and surrender” of the Ambassador (Son) manifests the world-embracing mission of the divine Sender (Father), such that God can accordingly identify with the “least” the “lowly” (Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 516.).  What is still missing though, from the perspective of the feminist critique for instance, is any implication of Christ’s empowerment of these “least” and “lowly.”  The disinherited, tortured and imprisoned are included, but not especially included – they do not receive the God’s “preferential option” for von Balthasar.

[3] I take globalization, very generally speaking, to be “the process of worldwide economic, political, and cultural integration that has taken on accelerated force in the last few decades” (see William T. Cavanaugh, “Balthasar, globalization, and the problem of the one and the many,” Communio 28, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 324-347.)  Cavanaugh actually argues that von Balthasar’s christology can be useful for solving the global problem of the one and the many: “The Christian is called not to replace one universal system with another,” he says, “but to attempt to ‘realize’ the universal body of Christ in every particular exchange” (p. 324).

[4] Gavin D’Costa has argued by using Joseph Dinoia’s trinitarianism, that the doctrine of descent into hell is particularly resourceful for addressing the issue of the salvation of non-Christians – but not in the way that Edward Oates or von Balthasar construe it.  (Gavin D’Costa, “The descent into hell as a solution for the problem of the fate of unevangelized non-Christians: Balthasar’s hell, the limbo of the fathers, and purgatory,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11, no. 2 (April 1, 2009): 146-171.)

[5] I’m waiting in anticipation to see what fruit S. Mark Heim’s current research on cross-religious atonement will produce.

[i] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 1: Prolegomena (Ignatius Press, 1989), 15.

[ii] Louis Roberts, The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Catholic Univ of Amer Pr, 1987), 229.

[iii] Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986), 55.

[iv] Kevin Mongrain, The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Irenaean Retrieval (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002), 60.

[v] James C. Livingston et al., Modern Christian Thought: The Twentieth Century, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press, 2006), 258.

[vi] Ibid., 257.

[vii] Gerard F. O’Hanlon, “Theological dramatics,” in Beauty of Christ (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994), 94.

[viii] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 1, 18.

[ix] Roberts, The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, 229.

[x] O’Hanlon, “Theological dramatics,” 93.

[xi] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory: The Dramatis Personae: The Person in Christ, vol. 3 (Ignatius Press, 1990), 149-50.

[xii] Ibid., 82.

[xiii] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory : The Dramatis Personae : The Person in Christ (Ignatius Press, 1993), 142.

[xiv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 78.

[xv] Ibid., 99.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid., 110.

[xviii] Ibid., 163.

[xix] Dutton Kearney, “Von Balthasar as transmodernist: recent works on theological aesthetics,” Religion and the Arts 14, no. 3 (January 1, 2010): 332-340.

[xx] W T. Dickens, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics: a model for post-critical Biblical interpretation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003).

[xxi] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 143.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., 144.

[xxiv] Ibid., 145-7.

[xxv] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1: Seeing the Form, 2nd ed. (Ignatius Press, 2009).

[xxvi] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, 143.

[xxvii] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4: The Action (Ignatius Press, 1994), 380-1.

[xxviii] Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, 302.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ian A. McFarland, The Divine Image: Envisioning The Invisible God (FORTRESS PRESS, 2005), 48.

[xxxi] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 318.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 323-4.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 362.

[xxxv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 135.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 138-9.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 153.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 519.

[xxxix] Ibid., 163.

[xl] Ibid., 505.

[xli] Ibid., 506.

[xlii] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 317.

[xliii] Ibid., 261.

[xliv] Steffen Lösel, “A plain account of Christian salvation? Balthasar on sacrifice, solidarity, and substitution,” Pro Ecclesia 13, no. 2 (March 1, 2004): 165.

[xlv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 252.

[xlvi] Ibid., 317.

[xlvii] Ibid., 268.

[xlviii] Ibid., 496.

[xlix] Edward T. Oakes S. J and David Moss, The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 151.

[l] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 325.

[li] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, Vol. 7: Theology: The New Covenant (T & T Clark International, 1990), 233.

[lii] Ibid., 234.

[liii] Ibid., 229.

[liv] Ibid.

[lv] Ibid.

[lvi] Ibid.

[lvii] Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Edward T. Oakes, “Balthasar, hell, and heresy: an exchange,” First Things, no. 168 (December 1, 2006): 25.

[lviii] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord Vol. 7, 230.

[lix] Paul J. Griffiths, “Is there a doctrine of the descent into hell?,” Pro Ecclesia 17, no. 3 (June 1, 2008): 257-268.

[lx] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord Vol. 7, 232.

[lxi] Ibid., 233.

[lxii] Ibid., 228.

[lxiii] Ibid., 232.

[lxiv] Ibid.

[lxv] Lösel, “A plain account of Christian salvation? Balthasar on sacrifice, solidarity, and substitution,” 146.

[lxvi] Ibid.

[lxvii] Ibid., 165.

[lxviii] Ibid.

[lxix] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 325.

[lxx] Ibid., 331.

[lxxi] Ibid., 149-50.

[lxxii] Ibid., 272.

[lxxiii] Ibid., 333.

[lxxiv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 478.

[lxxv] Ibid., 479.

[lxxvi] Ibid.

[lxxvii] Ibid.

[lxxviii] Ibid., 363.

[lxxix] Ibid., 379.

[lxxx] Ibid., 385.

[lxxxi] Ibid., 433.

[lxxxii] Mongrain, The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, 59.

[lxxxiii] Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, 215.

[lxxxiv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 162.

[lxxxv] O’Hanlon, “Theological dramatics,” 96.

[lxxxvi] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 142.

[lxxxvii] Ibid., 328.

[lxxxviii] Roberts, The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, 206.

[lxxxix] Terence E. Frethheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Fortress Press, 1984).

[xc] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 519.

[xci] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Last Act (Ignatius Press, 1998), 216.

[xcii] Ibid., 219.

[xciii] Ibid., 218.

[xciv] Ibid., 222.

[xcv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 523.

[xcvi] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 482.

[xcvii] Ibid., 483.

[xcviii] Ibid., 482.

[xcix] Ibid., 486.

[c] Ibid., 484.

[ci] Ibid.

[cii] Joerg Rieger, God and the Excluded: Visions and Blindspots in Contemporary Theology (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2000), 169.

[ciii] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 487.

[civ] Ibid.

[cv] O’Hanlon, “Theological dramatics,” 92.

[cvi] Ben Quash, “”Between the Brutely Given, and the Brutally, Banally Free” : Von Balthasar’s Theology of Drama in Dialogue with Hegel.,” Modern Theology 13, no. 3 (July 1, 1997): 293.

[cvii] J and Moss, The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, 156.

[cviii] Lösel, “A plain account of Christian salvation? Balthasar on sacrifice, solidarity, and substitution,” 154.

[cix] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? With a Short Discourse on Hell (Ignatius Press, 1988).

[cx] Jürgen Moltmann, “Justice for Victims and Perpetrators,” Reformed World 44, no. 1 (March 1, 1994): 2-12.

[cxi] Lösel, “A plain account of Christian salvation? Balthasar on sacrifice, solidarity, and substitution,” 171.

[cxii] S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006).

[cxiii] Andrew Park, Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation (Westminster John Knox, 2009).

[cxiv] Lösel, “A plain account of Christian salvation? Balthasar on sacrifice, solidarity, and substitution,” 170.

[cxv] Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 4, 439.

[cxvi] Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, 216.

[cxvii] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), xiii.

[cxviii] Ibid.


Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? With a Short Discourse on Hell. Ignatius Press, 1988.

———. Glory of the Lord Vol. 7: Theology: The New Covenant. T & T Clark International, 1990.

———. The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1: Seeing the Form. 2nd ed. Ignatius Press, 2009.

———. Theo-Drama, Vol. 4: The Action. Ignatius Press, 1994.

———. Theo-Drama, Vol. 3: The Dramatis Personae : The Person in Christ. Ignatius Press, 1993.

———. Theo-Drama, Vol. 2: The Dramatis Personae: Man in God. Ignatius Press, 1990.

Balthasar, Hans Urs Von. The Last Act. Ignatius Press, 1998.

———. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 1: Prolegomena. Ignatius Press, 1989.

Cavanaugh, William T. “Balthasar, globalization, and the problem of the one and the many.” Communio 28, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 324-347.

D’Costa, Gavin. “The descent into hell as a solution for the problem of the fate of unevangelized non-Christians: Balthasar’s hell, the limbo of the fathers, and purgatory.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11, no. 2 (April 1, 2009): 146-171.

Dickens, W T. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics: a model for post-critical Biblical interpretation. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.

Frethheim, Terence E. The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. Fortress Press, 1984.

Griffiths, Paul J. “Is there a doctrine of the descent into hell?.” Pro Ecclesia 17, no. 3 (June 1, 2008): 257-268.

Heim, S. Mark. Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.

J, Edward T. Oakes S., and David Moss. The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Kasper, Walter. The God of Jesus Christ. Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986.

Kearney, Dutton. “Von Balthasar as transmodernist: recent works on theological aesthetics.” Religion and the Arts 14, no. 3 (January 1, 2010): 332-340.

Livingston, James C., Francis Schussler Fiorenza, Sarah Coakley, James H, and Jr. Evans. Modern Christian Thought: The Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. Fortress Press, 2006.

Lösel, Steffen. “A plain account of Christian salvation? Balthasar on sacrifice, solidarity, and substitution.” Pro Ecclesia 13, no. 2 (March 1, 2004): 141-171.

McFarland, Ian A. The Divine Image: Envisioning The Invisible God. FORTRESS PRESS, 2005.

Moltmann, Jürgen. “Justice for Victims and Perpetrators..” Reformed World 44, no. 1 (March 1, 1994): 2-12.

Mongrain, Kevin. The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Irenaean Retrieval. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002.

O’Hanlon, Gerard F. “Theological dramatics..” In Beauty of Christ, 92-111. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

Park, Andrew. Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation. Westminster John Knox, 2009.

Pitstick, Alyssa Lyra, and Edward T. Oakes. “Balthasar, hell, and heresy: an exchange.” First Things, no. 168 (December 1, 2006): 25-32.

Quash, Ben. “”Between the Brutely Given, and the Brutally, Banally Free” : Von Balthasar’s Theology of Drama in Dialogue with Hegel..” Modern Theology 13, no. 3 (July 1, 1997): 293-318.

Rieger, Joerg. God and the Excluded: Visions and Blindspots in Contemporary Theology. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2000.

Roberts, Louis. The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Catholic Univ of Amer Pr, 1987.

Nietzsche's Anti-Christ: Jesus and Buddhism


Friedrich Nietzsche is without question infamous for, among many other things, how much he despised Christianity.  Especially significant, as many also know, is Nietzsche’s portrayal of Jesus in contrast to the Pauline version of the faith that energized and proliferated the widespread religion of Christianity that Nietzsche knew and that people still see today.  The villain for Nietzsche is not Jesus but Paul of course.  No doubt Nietzsche’s view of both Christianity and Jesus has been substantially called into question,[i] but it simultaneously has served to correct some less than praiseworthy attributes of the Church in some cases, and to hold the faithful accountable in others.[ii]  In addition, significant attention has been given to Nietzsche’s analysis of Buddhism as compared to Christianity.  While Nietzsche’s clearly regards the former to be more realistic, he still considers both to be nihilistic and decadent.  Others have also wondered about the degree to which Nietzsche’s depiction of Buddhism is consistent with authentic Buddhism – it may depend on which Buddhist tradition is being considered.  This is partly of what will be considered in this essay.

What is discussed less often, however, is the extent to which Nietzsche’s selective picture of Jesus parallels his (mis?)characterization of the Buddhist worldview.  Hence, what will be conducted here is an overview of how Nietzsche construes Jesus of Nazareth, placed alongside of a synopsis of his appreciation and understanding of Buddhism.  A short assessment and response will follow.  Less background in Buddhism than Christianity is assumed on the reader’s part, so a very basic and pithy overview of the features of Buddhism that are related to Nietzsche’s treatment of it will be supplied in necessarily broad strokes before drawing any conclusions.  Beforehand though, it will be useful to give a short account of what Nietzsche says about two of the other great world religions.


The Law of Manu is considered to be words of Brahma recorded in the Dharmasastra tradition of Hinduism.  As such, for many it has an authoritative tone.  The Bible, as we have already seen, can only be used for bad purposes according to Nietzsche: “negation of life, hatred of the body, the degradation and self-violation of humans through the concept of sin,” but Nietzsche gets the opposite feeling when he reads the law book of Manu (AC 56).[iii]  For this reason, Nietzsche regards it as a far superior work.  The main reason for this is because it permits the noble classes to embrace and defend their privilege.  In other words, it preserves the natural order – the order that Christianity corrupts.

Via an approximate application of the cast system, Nietzsche maintains that three main levels of society should exist.  The highest class consists of those who are the most “spiritual” and therefore the “strongest,” which is essentially to say that they are the most knowledgeable (AC 57).[iv]  This group is small.  The second class is also strong, but more so in the physical sense.  This level includes the vanguards of the law – those like the king, the judges, soldiers, and anyone who works to ensure protection and security of the political order.  These actors behave in accordance with the interests of the first class – the nobility.  Lastly there is the mediocre caste, which makes up the vast majority.  It might be acceptable to name these people the laborers.  They are the farmers, traders, factory workers, and even many of the artists.  To summarize what Nietzsche means here, “Everyone finds his [or her] privilege in his [or her] own type of being . . . [m]ediocrity is needed before there can be exceptions: it is the condition for a high culture.”[v]  Said another way, rights are only privileges.  Thus, injustice – as opposed to Christianity’s notion of injustice – only arises when rights are demanded as warranting equality for all, which disrupts the necessary social ladder.  This happens, for instance, when “chandala-apostles” – those promoting Christian values (chandala refers to the lowest caste rung in some Indian societies) – challenge the otherwise happy and modest sentiments of the mediocre class by encouraging them to expect equality and act with ressentiment, or revenge and envy.

Though this might sound politically incorrect at best or like outright discrimination and prejudice to many modern readers at worst, it would perhaps be too simplistic to completely dismiss Nietzsche’s argument without further consideration.  The word “mediocre” is not meant to have the same derogatory connotation that people today typically associate with it.  It is rather simply describing the way life is for Nietzsche as he observes it.  The description coheres with what Nietzsche believes is instinctive and natural.  Religion as reflected in books like the Law of Manu merely serves to authorize or normalize what has already been true throughout human history.  It is not mean to necessarily be explicitly evaluative.  What Nietzsche judges to be misleading, however, is the extent to which such teachings are presented as having been inspired by a higher power once and for all rather than developed and superimposed after much reflection and experimentation on the part of rulers, priests, and other elites.

So while Nietzsche appreciates the more realistic philosophical underpinnings of the Indian traditions he knew, they still posed a threat to the good of European society because of what Nietzsche determined to be a renunciation of the world in their thought:  “Knowing him, the Atman, Brahmans relinquish the desire for posterity, the desire for possessions, the desire for worldly prosperity, and go forth as medicants.”[vi] According to Richard Brown, Nietzsche “falsely regarded Hinduism (Brahmanism, Vedanta), like Schopenhauer, as singularly life-denying.”[vii]  Indian philosophy in general was seen by Nietzsche as essentially pessimistic, supporting the ascetic denial of the will.  Because Nietzsche read Shopenhauer, it is likely that that he understood the text of the Bhagavad Gita as a predominately non-dualistic or Advaitic variety following Sankara.[viii]  As such, Nietzsche equates the concept of maya with the unreal and illusion in general, which is textually inaccurate.[ix]  Ironically, as what will be highlighted below concerning Buddhism, it has been suggested that maya resembles something similar to Nietzsche’s will to power.

In a similar vein, Nietzsche believes Islam to be a “lesser evil” compared to Christianity, and for analogous reasons.  Muslims assert noble values through masculine instincts, for example, and say “Yes” to life in this way (AC 60).[x]  More specifically, Nietzsche expresses admiration for Islamic culture, which Europe lost when the Moors and the Jews were expulsed from Spain.  Christians were sure to take their riches, which empowered their propagation in Europe and beyond (to the “new” world) even more than Nietzsche acknowledges.  Lastly, Nietzsche complains about how this money was used by the Church to buy German aristocratic support over the centuries.


            The first issue Nietzsche addresses in this second portion of The Anti-Christ is the notion of the “psychology of the redeemer.”  Particularly problematic for Nietzsche is Renan’s concept of Jesus’ type as a “genius” or “hero,” which Nietzsche calls  “unevangelical.”  Jesus’ teachings negate struggle and immoralize the “capacity for resistance” according to Nietzsche (AC 29).[xi]  Thus the world that matters is completely internalized.  The eternal kingdom lives inside each of us.  Consequently, Nietzsche says Jesus promotes 1) a hatred for every kind of reality, and 2) an understanding of natural instincts like reluctance, aversion to pain, and self-preservation as inherently harmful.  These two principles lay the groundwork for the doctrine of redemption, which Nietzsche also describes as a “refined development of hedonism,” and somewhat related to Epicureanism (AC 30).[xii]  Pleasure or bliss then, as Nietzsche reads Jesus, can only comes by adopting love for all, even enemies.  This is the religion of love that inevitably develops as a result of the fear of pain.

In this way, Nietzsche challenges Renan’s depiction of Jesus as a “fanatic of aggression” and as a “mortal enemy” to the priests and the theologians of the day (AC 31).[xiii]  Instead, Nietzsche insists that the redeemer psychology is a “childlike” faith – not a “hard-won faith” (AC 32).[xiv]  And this respect it seems, Nietzsche associates Jesus more closely with the teachings of Buddhism, which as we’ve seen he holds in slightly higher esteem.  Hence, Nietzsche sees Jesus committing to a faith that is not formulaic, and certainly not combative.  Jesus is an anti-realist, so the Last Super, or language about the “Son of Man,” or the “Kingdom of God” for instance, only functions allegorically and is limited by the Jewish religious context.  In Nietzsche’s reading, everything Jesus believes as “true” is just an inner light – nothing solid.  He is a “free spirit.”  Thus, dogma is only symbolism, in spite of every crude ecclesiastical temptation to suggest otherwise.  Indeed, Nietzsche calls Jesus “the great symbolist” (AC 34),[xv] implying that the outer, material world is just that – a symbol, nothing more.  It’s a symbol that can tell us something about the world that truly matters, which is the inner world.

Doctrines like the Trinity, or even the personhood of God, are complete inventions and without base in “the redeemer,” according to Nietzsche.  Furthermore, Jesus’ knowledge is “stupidity” concerning worldly systems and structures like religion, culture, or the state.  Guilt, punishment, sin and hope for reward are apparently absent from the mind of the “evangel” (AC 33).[xvi]  The blessedness of the “glad tidings” announced by Jesus is not conditional by Nietzsche’s rendering – meaning, not a promise.  It’s a fully realized way of relating to the world in the present – of practicing and acting, not believing (e.g., having no enemies, not showing favoritism, letting one’s “yes be yes,” and not getting angry).  This kind of life would make a person feel divine, eternal, and perfect.  This is what Jesus means when he promises “paradise” for the thief on the cross.  To take an example, Nietzsche claims that the word “father” expresses this feeling itself, and the word “son” represents the “entrance” into that feeling (AC 34).[xvii]  Furthermore:

“Atonement and praying for forgiveness are not the way to God: only the evangelical practice leads to God, in fact it is ‘God’ – What the evangel did away with was the Judaism of the concepts of ‘sin’, ‘forgiveness of sin’, ‘faith’, ‘redemption through faith’ – the whole Jewish church doctrine was rejected in the ‘glad tidings’” (AC 33).[xviii]

In sum, the psychological reality of redemption consists solely in material and interior rather than otherworldly terms.  Jesus promises nothing about afterlife in Nietzsche’s view.  It is this life that matters – a new life, not a new faith, which is everywhere and nowhere as an experience of the heart (AC 34).[xix]  John Charles Evans has shed light on Nietzsche’s Jesus in very positive terms: “The abolition of sin in deference to conceptions of living and acting is a dramatic and critical interpretation.  It connects Nietzsche’s Jesus, not only with life affirmation, but also Nietzsche’s concept of ‘beyond good and evil.’  Nietzsche ascribes to Jesus the concept of value creation through living rather through the pursuit of a higher moral code.”[xx]  The suggestion that Nietzsche understands Jesus as life affirming might be somewhat a misinterpretation here.  It is fair on the other hand to highlight Nietzsche’s appreciation of Jesus’ value creation.  Jesus just doesn’t create the values that Nietzsche is convinced are best for people, but Nietzsche is willing to admit that Jesus’ spiritual program is a viable option.

A Christian might immediately object and reply that Jesus at least appears to directly and intentionally oppose the political powers and religious leaders of his day, but Nietzsche doubts whether Jesus was even conscience of or concerned about this at all, leaving some readers to suspicious of Nietzsche’s hermeneutical key.  It is not the concern of this essay to analyze at any length the exegetical problems posed by Nietzsche’s rendering of Jesus. Nietzsche was surely aware of the discrepancies between his construal and that found in Gospels; he just thought that the psychology of the disciples and the first followers would reconcile the differences.


A Very Brief Philosophical Background

“It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth.’” – Richard Rorty[xxi]

Nietzsche rejects Hegel’s dialectical unfolding of historical progress with hierarchical stages in the world (though Nietzsche does seem to maintain that there is an inner logic at work in history, a process and a dynamism, as Hegel did).[xxii]  But his revaluation of values can be expressed in positively Hegelian terms insofar as he negates a negation, for he considers Christianity as the ‘revaluation of all the values of antiquity.’”[xxiii]  And this double negation does not lead back to the same place, but beyond – beyond pessimism and optimism, and even theism and atheism.

Nietzsche is far more concerned about the individual, however, and takes a psychological approach in his work more than that of an attempt to conduct a totalizing synthesis of history.  As Gianni Vattimo has put it, Nietzsche is convinced that “seeking metaphysical consolation in essences and the rational structure of the universe was characteristic of an enfeebled and decadent culture.”[xxiv]  In this manner, Heidegger paints a stark picture of Nietzsche:  “The suprasensory world is without effective power.  It bestows no life.  Metaphysics, i.e., for Nietzsche, Western philosophy understood as Platonism, is at an end.  Nietzsche understands his own philosophy as the countermovement to metaphysics, and that means for him a movement in opposition to Platonism.”[xxv]  Consequently, Nietzsche rejects the root idea that morality is in place with its source in something transcendent.  And even if some metaphysical reality existed, and one could somehow know it, such knowledge would be useless for Nietzsche.[xxvi]

Nietzsche criticizes Kant for drawing what Nietzsche thinks is an epistemological boundary line, but Nietzsche misunderstands Kant on this point, as Kant only means to make a limit distinction.  So Nietzsche really accepts Kant’s view of the empirical limitations of knowledge in a certain sense, but vehemently disallows for any kind of faith – a position at which Kant never arrived – as faith for Nietzsche would only reflect human misguided desire instead of anything about truth.

The trouble with the enlightened thinkers then, irreligious as they may be, is that they still conceive of reality in a two-world framework.  The Socratic pursuit of knowledge about reality is their chief objective and is presumed to lead to happiness.  Like Hume before him, Nietzsche understands reason to be a slave of the passions.[xxvii]   Bearing this in mind, once one has detected the “human, all too human” foundation of metaphysical systems, there is nothing remaining on which to stand.  Nietzsche has perhaps moved the farthest away from Descartes at this point.  And to a significant degree, Nietzsche has followed Leibniz’s awareness that human perceptions and beliefs are not always conscious, and certainly that they are not static; nor is reality dependent upon these thoughts, though on the other hand we are constantly being shaped by them.  Nietzsche “thus helps us take seriously the possibility that there is no central faculty, no central self, called ‘reason.’”[xxviii]

Nietzsche adheres to Feuerbach’s admonition that Gods are the result of a projection of unconscious human qualities,[xxix] by assuming that “religions are created by humanity according to perceived spiritual needs.”[xxx]  Nietzsche goes further than Feuerbach though, because Feuerbach is still conceiving of a common humanity.  As soon as humanity is universalized, Nietzsche is appalled.  Instead Nietzsche inverts Feuerbach by individualizing this truth.  God can no longer be the idealized objectification of the best possible human being because, not only is there no such agreed-upon human being, but the Christian God would be antithetical to the kind of God Nietzsche would idealize.  The only common nature is that some are strong and others are weak.  Epistemologically then, it begins to become clear why Nietzsche shares more with Buddhism or Hinduism than Christianity.

Nietzsche on Buddhism

Buddhism presupposes a very mild climate, extremely gentle and liberal customs, the complete absence of militarism, and the existence of higher, scholarly classes to give focus to the movement.  The highest goals are cheerfulness, quiet, and an absence of desire, and these goals are achieved.  Buddhism is not a religion where people only aspire to perfection: perfection is the norm (AC 21).[xxxi]

As mentioned above, Nietzsche does judge Buddhism to be superior to Christianity, as it is situated beyond good and evil, departs from morality and has no conception salvation from sin or sin itself for that matter: “This is the main distinction Nietzsche makes between the two nihilistic religions: Buddhism has no ground in ressentiment against life whereas Christianity – or, as we might say, Christendom – is a product of it.”[xxxii]  By confronting the reality of suffering, Buddhism is at least for Nietzsche not dishonest.  It doesn’t manipulate suffering or purport to overcome it in a Christian fashion by conjuring up a masochistic redemption or heavenly reward story a result of innocent death and sacrifice.  It has no ‘idea’ of God, and as such is phenomenological and positivistic rather than metaphysical (AC 20).[xxxiii]  Prayer, asceticism, and compulsion are absent.  Buddhists do not hope for any eschatological or judgmental triumph – unlike Christianity, whose values are otherworldly.  They concern themselves instead with living the present life.

Nietzsche cites the Buddhist maxim, ‘enmity will not bring an end to enmity,’ which illustrates well the difference between Buddhism and Nietzsche’s experience with Christian ressentiment.  On the other hand, this notion discloses some of Buddhism’s anti-instinctive tendencies in Nietzsche’s view, like the suppression of the self and the ego. Nietzsche wants to overcome resistance more so than self (AC 2).[xxxiv]  Preventing trouble by not acting – what a terrible way to live, Nietzsche might charge. It is withdrawal for Nietzsche, fatigue of civilization having grown too sensitive to pain.  Furthermore, Nietzsche is troubled by the aversion to suffering demonstrated by both religions.  Suffering for Nietzsche is not to be feared or escaped, nor sought, but utilized.  It is an opportunity (BGE 201).[xxxv]  Nietzsche gives his diagnosis of Buddhism and its perspective on suffering as follows:

Buddhism has two physiological facts that it has always kept in mind: first, an excessively acute sensitivity that is expressed as are refined susceptibility to pain, and second, having lived all too long with concepts and logical procedures, an over-spiritualization that has had the effect of promoting the ‘impersonal’ at the expense of the personal ones. These physiological conditions give rise to depression (AC 20).[xxxvi]

“According to Nietzsche, both Christianity and Buddhism define redemption as the absence of suffering.”[xxxvii] What is problematic for Nietzsche is that, like Christianity – even though it does so in a more natural way – Buddhism gives itself the disease for which it claims to be the cure.  It is too weak, Nietzsche would say, to truly welcome suffering as that which life entails.  Buddhists rightly see that the condition of suffering itself must be accepted.  But that is precisely where they stop and turn to seek Nirvana, which for Nietzsche is the life of enlightened self-interest – just not in a noble way.[xxxviii]  Nobles are not afraid.  Accordingly, the Buddha has to come up with all kinds of tricks:

The Buddha took hygienic measures against this [depression], including: living out in the open, the wandering life, moderation and a careful diet; caution as far as liquor is concerned; caution when it comes to all affects that create bile or raise the blood temperature; no worrying about either yourself or other people.  He insists on ideas that produce either calm or amusement – he comes up with methods for phasing out all the others.  He sees goodness and kindness as healthy (AC 20).[xxxix]

Nietzsche is convinced that the same process he sees happening in Europe already occurred with the Buddha five centuries before “the European calendar.” The age of idealism had reached an end there as well, leading to the depression described above.  Nietzsche is proposing an alternative solution – one that does not end with the move from “Christian conscience” to “scientific conscience,” the latter of which interpreted history with “divine reason” (GM iii. 27 – he quotes The Gay Science here).[xl]  Instead, because “all great things destroy themselves by an act of self-cancellation” – a reference to the Hegelian dialectic – the “will to truth” itself has become aware of its own problem (GM iii. 27).[xli]  And with this Nietzsche is able to conclude the following about suffering: “Man, the bravest animal, the one most accustomed to suffering, does not deny suffering in itself.  He desire it, he seeks it out in person, provided that people show him a meaning for it, the purpose of suffering.  The curse that earlier spread itself over men was not suffering, but the senselessness of suffering – and the ascetic ideal offered him a meaning!”  Thus, Buddhism for Nietzsche is exactly what he has predicted for Europe: “man will sooner will nothingness than not will . . .” (GM iii. 27).[xlii]  None of this will do for Nietzsche, since humanity is better off with “I will” rather than “thou shalt” (Zarathustra, 60-64):[xliii] “The world seen from within, the world described according to its ‘intelligible character’ – it would be ‘will to power’ and nothing else” (BGE 36).[xliv]

Nietzsche’s Alternative

Insofar as will to power relates to freedom, it is not freedom from [suffering, for instance, out of fear] but freedom to – freedom to act and realize oneself.[xlv]  This is what Nietzsche does not find in Buddhism.  Though they both have an ambition for a kind of self-overcoming, their respective motivation and means are incongruent.  And while an extensive excursus on the will to power cannot be done here, it should at minimum be clarified that the idea does not denote a superficial, corrupt idea of power that leads to ruthless evildoing, for example.  It is rather an “enobling” of the mind for Nietzsche.[xlvi]  The truly powerful as he sees it would never intentionally harm, as that would be a display of weakness.  Harm could happen, but only as a byproduct of creative enactment.[xlvii]  This is why some artists and philosophers can be considered by Nietzsche to be the most valuable, powerful people, while barbarians for him are some of the weakest, most uncultured, and least valuable.[xlviii] At the same time, the will to power is more than a “struggle for existence” as Darwin has it; it is what drives enhancement, growth, and the generation of life.[xlix]

No less important is the idea of the will itself as a type of desire for improvement and not just the fulfillment of any fleeting impulse.[l]  As Rorty has argued in his interpretation of Nietzsche, “The drama of an individual human life, or of the history of humanity as a whole, is not one in which a preexistent goal is triumphantly reached or tragically not reached.”  Self-overcoming in Nietzsche’s mind therefore is something definitely divergent from Christian redemption and Buddhist enlightenment.


Whereas orthodox Indian religions claim that every person has an eternal soul (atman) as part of the metaphysical absolute of Brahman, the Buddha denied the existence of any such eternal or immutable spiritual essence.  The principle end for Buddhism is the cessation of suffering and rebirth, which is defined negatively, but the path is construed positively, aiming to fulfill humanity’s potential for goodness and happiness.  The final and highest goal is the summum bonum of Nirvana, which literally translates to “quenching” or “blowing out,”[li] but Nirvana does not have an unambiguous, fixed meaning.[lii]  Though the means by which one reaches Nirvana is often assumed to be by way of virtuosity, living morally as such is considered by some Buddhist scholars to actually be a hindrance. [liii]  This is because it reproduces karma, which binds one to the cycle of rebirth. Hence it can be explained instead that virtue and wisdom – a profound philosophical understanding of the human condition – are fused together in Buddhist thought.  The latter, however, seems to takes precedence.

Concerning wisdom, what must first be acknowledged and embraced is the truth of suffering (Dukkha).  There are different levels of suffering though ranging from sickness, pain, and grief to not getting what one wants and discovering a lack of control of one’s environment.  It’s not that pleasures and fleeting enjoyments are ignored in Buddhism, or even unappreciated, but the futility of pleasant moments is definitely underlined.  Addiction to the desire for these moments and experiences is what causes reincarnation.  Even a pain-free life can be incredibly unsatisfying.  The teaching here is not implying that all desire is bad.  It is “bad” only when excessive or perverted, described as Tanha (greed, hatred, delusion – not unlike ressentiment). Buddhist sources also speak of desire in more positive terms as chanda.[liv]  This understanding of desire, however – which evokes the idea of wanting to reach a particular goal, for instance, like Nirvana itself – departs from Nietzsche’s rendering of the primal instincts.

Cravings and thirsts are inevitable, but what must be remembered in the Buddhist universe is cyclic change, whereby everything that exists is characterized by unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (annica), and the absence of self-essence (anata).[lv]  Thus the burning flame of these cravings and thirsts must be put out.  It should not be inferred that Buddhism is a suicidal route to annihilation, however – though one can see why this might be deduced by Nietzsche or anyone else opposed to nihilism.[lvi]

The eightfold path, which is the fourth noble truth, is intended to exhibit how a Buddhist would live, and how one would eventually become like the Buddha and reach irreversible liberation from worldly existence, or samsara.  It is comprised of three kinds of practices and categories that steer between indulgence and austerity: morality, mediation, and wisdom. Beginning with wisdom, one develops the right understanding and resolve.  In morality, right speech, action, and livelihood are cultivated.  This is achieved by right effort, mindfulness, and meditation.[lvii]

The word Mahayana specifically means the “Great Vehicle.”  It is the universal way to salvation.[lviii]  This immediately poses a problem for comparison to Nietzsche, since he would be bothered, if not scandalized by the audacity of universal and salvific claim.  As will be noted below, however, Nietzsche was primarily exposed to Theravada Buddhism and apparently was not as familiar with the role of a bodhisattva.


It has been argued by Jay Garfield that through the Mahayana tradition, one can see Nirvana not as an escape from the world but as an enlightened and awakened engagement with it.[lix]  Correspondingly, Garfield finds resemblance between joyful participation in the world seen as divine play in Mahayana Buddhism and the will to power.  If this is the approach one wishes to take is evaluating Nietzsche’s interpretation of Buddhism, however, the same could be said of various types of Christianity – one in which followers orient themselves around the kingdom of God as a reality to be realized here and now, for instance, rather than a personalistic focus on individual salvation for the life hereafter or evacuation to heaven.  Zen Buddhism especially, because it so stresses monism, has some equivalence with “beyond good and evil.”  Even Zen presents difficulties though, with its quasi-Kantian understanding of language itself as dualistic.  Nietzsche does not have the same confidence in a referent.  What appears is all there is.[lx]

It has been concluded that Nietzsche probably studied primarily texts from the Theravada tradition rather than the Mahayana, because the former tend to be more focused on the phenomena of Buddhism’s historical origin, which was Nietzsche’s interest, and he had access to sources for both.[lxi]  Moreover, we know that Nietzsche read Hermann Oldenberg’s book Buddha, which provides further corroboration for this theory.

In his comments noted above about Buddhism, it could be inferred that Nietzsche is submitting something like the following: “For those not strong enough to respond to this challenge of the open sea, the appeal of a cheerful and refined nihilistic and non-theistic religion like Buddhism might be irresistible.”[lxii]  It is evident from a personal letter to his friend, Carl von Gersdorff, that Nietzsche himself was perhaps tempted by and struggled with the lure of obtaining tranquility in life through the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom as the very drive for the will to live, as this ideal is comparable to Nietzsche’s comprehension of Nirvana.[lxiii]

Buddhism is a particular renounced form of nihilism for Nietzsche – a passive nihilism in fact.[lxiv]  Nietzsche thought this nihilism could be overcome.  While this overcoming eliminates the categorical imperative, utilitarianism, or any universal justice, Nietzsche was only a nihilist himself insofar as this is taken to mean that he intended to abolish the old “lies” in order to make room for creating something new and an “increased power of the spirit” (WP 22).[lxv]  The Buddha in some sense for Nietzsche may have done a noble act by coming up with the Dhamma teaching to help others not necessarily overcome their psychological despair, but relate differently to their recognition of life’s meaninglessness in such a way that cheerfulness rather than depression constitutes one’s attitude toward this perceived emptiness.  It can be and has certainly been argued that Buddhism is one feasible way of responding to existential Angst.  It serves to overcome insecurity and “incompleteness” by equipping persons to cheerfully welcome their annihilation after death.[lxvi]  Indeed, some have even posited that if Nietzsche would have had access to more profound elaborations on the depths and varieties of Buddhism, and particular its notion of citta-bhavana, which is rooted in humanity’s psychological makeup, he might have even considered the Buddha himself to be an Ubermensch.  As the argument goes, Buddha, unlike some of his followers, advocated a practical, spiritual path of which the purpose was to “become such as can see things as they really are.”  From this point of view, there is admittedly some analogy to Nietzsche’s project.  What Robert Morrison has put forth, for instance, is the explanation that transcending consciousness leads precisely to a new level instinctual being, or something like the governing nature to which Nietzsche says we must be true.

Is not this instinctual existence, however, of which Morrison speaks, more akin to what results after the Christian concept of the sanctification process has begun, whereby a person “puts on” the character of Christ and is conformed to “God’s image”?  Though with difficulty at first, a person is eventually thought to develop his or her own identity more fully, confidently, and determinately, as it should be.  And while this is obviously a different notion than that of Nietzsche’s primordial, animal nature that must be retrieved and embraced, it is not as drastically counter to Nietzsche’s idea of self-overcoming as he lets on.  But ultimately, whereas Buddhists are striving on the whole and in general to overcome selfhood, ambition, desire – that is, disentanglement from natural or default instincts (i.e., Nietzsche’s view of instinct) – doesn’t Nietzsche’s unequivocally digress from this, if not directly opposes it?  It is true that both Nietzsche and Buddhists can speak of mastering desire or instinct to a certain degree, and perhaps this is where they share some inhabitance.

The Buddhist, however, is not to be concerned with or “fettered” by the “wrong views” of other religions (or miccha-ditthis).[lxvii] Nietzsche, on the other hand, is transparently disturbed by Christianity’s “wrong views.”  In other words, one could submit that Nietzsche is much more “evangelistic” than any good Buddhist ever could be.  In the additional ending to the AntiChrist, Nietzsche even advises very coercive, legal measures that should be taken against the practice of Christianity for the greater good of society.[lxviii]

If Nietzsche had a genuine precursor in Spinoza, why not wonder whether he defended a new Dionysian, pantheistic religion much like what Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani said was similar to the standpoint of Meister Eckhart, who speaks of ‘living without why, within the Godless desert of divinity’?”[lxix]  This might seem like a stretch, but Graham Parkes makes the case that Nietzsche comes close to Mayana Buddhism, which he didn’t know as well, with ideas like amor fati and the Dionysian as the overcoming of nihilism.[lxx]  Later on in his career, however, under the influence of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche (Nashitani studied with Heidegger), Nashitani himself was much more critical of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and in particular of the will to power, thereby problematizing Parkes’ theory.    

A bodhisattva is one who refuses to enter Nirvana until all beings have become enlightened.  This sounds remarkably like Zarathustra at the beginning of the Nietzsche’s book.  But while Zarathustra proclaims his love for humanity, he is not striving for the realization of self-emptiness through interrelatedness with all things – regardless of how naturally his existence gives way to an overflowing “generosity and re-engagement with the world.”[lxxi] In a limited respect, Nietzsche does order an outlook of the world as divine, but whether this makes him a Mahayana Buddhist is another question:

For Zarathustra, as long as human beings feel themselves subordinated to transcendent forces in the form of divinities, they will lack confidence in their own will to create.  But if they are able to face up to the impermanence of ‘becoming’ and fully engage the cycles of death and rebirth and destruction and creation that characterize the world of a deity like Dionysus, such self-overcoming will allow the force of the creative will to work at play – perhaps even dance – through them . . . atheism is merely a provisional stage in the transformations of the human spirit.[lxxii]

This argument citing Zarathustra provides perhaps the best support for identifying any parallels between Nietzsche and Buddhism.  Both Nietzsche and figures like the Daoist sage or the Zen master are unified to an extent in their alignment against anthropomorphism, in saying “Yes” to cosmic life, in underscoring the tremendous contingency of human existence, and in their affinity with the Buddhist teaching of ‘dependent arising’ (pratitya-samutpada), which emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things and the consequent ‘emptiness’ of any ‘self-nature’ to them.”[lxxiii] Furthermore, as was noted before about Nietzsche’s appreciation for the caste, the modern, secularized Christian idea of human “rights” and equality before God is absent in these philosophies.

Andre van der Braak has framed Nietzsche’s revaluation of values as a reinvention of a soteriological scheme, albeit after for a post-theistic age, in place of the perverted Christian one.[lxxiv]  The need for redemption is a sign of decadence for Nietzsche, as has been noted already.  But what if “being healed from a spirit of revenge and resentment is how Nietzsche envisions redemption, where all life is considered to be justified and worthy of ecstatic affirmation . . . embracing passionately the horrifying reality of eternal recurrence”?[lxxv]  In this light, redemption is seen as neither a static state nor endpoint but a process of functioning without the friction of the conscious ‘I’:[lxxvi]

The crucified innocent one (EH) is a condemnation of life for the sake of redemption in the afterworld.  The suffering of Dionysus on the other hand, is a natural and ecstatic expression of the fullness and richness of life, not an objection to life but its celebration.  Therefore there is no need to give it a meaning beyond itself.  It is part of life, and does not need any further justification . . . The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering: he is sufficiently strong, rich and capable of deifying to do so.[lxxvii]

Thus van der Braak too tries to assimilate Nietzsche to another take on Buddhism, or visa versa.  At the same time, he points to several major weaknesses, only in this case he does so via the Christian tradition, remarking and confirming once more that Nietzsche does in fact take insist on a different outlook toward suffering.  In several places, it is apparent that van der Braak can’t help but recognize the difficult truth that Nietzsche is unable to sufficiently deal with the horror of suffering, specifically in the Nazi death camps.  Van der Braak cites an implicit reference to a theology of the cross analogous to Moltmann’s crucified God as the best Christian response.


Nietzsche is adamant about the importance and centrality of being governed by natural instincts in a way that much Eastern thought would shun.  But in the same way that Nietzsche grossly misrepresents the nature of Christianity and Jesus’ teachings on occasion, so too is there little reason to doubt that he does the same with Buddhism, and drawing attention to these mischaracterizations is a constructive and necessary exercise.  It is also probable that Buddhism and Christianity are made into straw men for Nietzsche at times.  In certain light, it can be shown that far less conflict exists between these various ideologies than Nietzsche is inclined to concede.  Is it not reasonable to suspect that Nietzsche partially fed off of this antagonism?  This notwithstanding, and while I profess no expertise on Buddhism, it is nevertheless quite speculative in my view to recommend that Nietzsche himself be understood as having elicited anything remotely congruent to the kernel of historical Buddhism or Christianity in his concepts like the will to power, eternal recurrence,[1] or the Ubermensch[2] – as vast and diverse as the Christian and Buddhist streams are.

What can be asserted, however, is something to which has already been alluded – namely, that Jesus and Buddhism mirror each other substantially in Nietzsche’s study.  It is they who are the worthy competitors with the AntiChrist, and who present plausible redemption plans.  This is a sign of respect.  Christianity on the other hand, is straightforwardly condemnable.[lxxviii]  One could summarize by delineating things thusly: About Christianity, Nietzsche abhors both its form and content, though that content as Nietzsche saw it was not spelled out in any detail here.  Regarding Jesus and Buddhism, however, it is content rather than form that troubles Nietzsche.  The form is that of which Nietzsche approves.  The reason is that both Jesus and the Buddha were more interested in incarnating practices than dogmatizing systems of belief, and concerning this very limited formulation – without saying anything more – it is perhaps safe to concede that Nietzsche is right.

[1] “Eternal recurrence” has not been touched on here, and it is often a neglected theme in Nietzsche’s work, so at least a terse summation is needed: “if one affirms one’s own life in its becoming, one can come to affirm it as worthy of infinite repetition despite the lack of this-worldly or other-worldly compensations,” (Hill, Nietzsche, 88.).  This is subtle but not insignificant distinction from Buddhism’s cyclical philosophy of both the world and rebirth.

[2] Against an allegedly reductionist image of Nietzsche offered by Habermas, who regards Nietzsche as representing an impasse of extreme subjectivism one view of Nietzsche’s ubermensch (overman) as portrayed by Vattimo is depicted as an affinity with revolutionary movement: See Gianni Vattimo and William McCuaig, Dialogue with Nietzsche (Columbia University Press, 2008), 91-92.

[i] Kent A. Heimbigner, “Nietzsche on Christianity: a baptismally informed analysis,” Logia 13, no. 1 (January 1, 2004): 35-45.

[ii] Merold Westphal, “Nietzsche as a theological resource.,” Modern Theology 13, no. 2 (April 4, 1997): 213.

[iii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche: The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols: And Other Writings (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 56.

[iv] Ibid., 57.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Robert G. Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities (Oxford University Press, USA, 1999), 17.

[vii] Jim Urpeth and John Lippitt, Nietzsche and the Divine (Clinamen Press Ltd., 2000), 163.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, 63.

[xi] Ibid., 29.

[xii] Ibid., 31.

[xiii] Ibid., 28.

[xiv] Ibid., 29.

[xv] Ibid., 34.

[xvi] Ibid., 30.

[xvii] Ibid., 31.

[xviii] Ibid., 30.

[xix] Ibid., 31.

[xx]  John Charles Evans, “Nietzsche on Christ vs. Christainity,” in Soundings 78 (1995): 571-88. 575.

[xxi] Harold Bloom, Friedrich Nietzsche (Infobase Publishing (Facts on File/Chelsea House), 1987), 196.

[xxii] Walter Arnold Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton University Press, 2002), 240-241.

[xxiii] Ibid., 112.

[xxiv] Gianni Vattimo, Nietzsche: An Introduction, 1st ed. (Stanford University Press, 2002), 23.

[xxv] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays (Harpercollins College Div, 1977), 61.

[xxvi] Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism, 12.

[xxvii] Frederick Copleston, History of Philosophy, Volume 5 (Image, 1993), 288.

[xxviii] Bloom, Friedrich Nietzsche, 202.

[xxix] Urpeth and Lippitt, Nietzsche and the Divine.

[xxx] Jason Rappoport, “Rav Kook and Nietzsche: A Preliminary Comparison of Their Ideas on Religions, Christainity, Buddhism and Atheism,” in The Torah u-madda Journal no. 12, (January 2004): 102.

[xxxi] Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, 17.

[xxxii] Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism, 28.

[xxxiii] Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, 17.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 4.

[xxxv] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Unabridged. (Dover Publications, 1997).

[xxxvi] Nietzsche, Nietzsche, 18.

[xxxvii] Andre van der Braak, “Nietzsche, Christianity and Zen on redemption,” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 18, no. 1 (January 1, 2008): 7.

[xxxviii] Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism, 26.

[xxxix] Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, 18.

[xl] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo (Vintage, 1989), 160.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Thus spoke Zarathustra: a book for everyone and no one (Penguin, 1961).

[xliv] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.

[xlv] Kaufmann, Nietzsche, 186.

[xlvi] Ibid., 194.

[xlvii] Ibid.

[xlviii] Ibid., 196.

[xlix] Ibid., 246.

[l] Kevin R. Hill, Nietzsche: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2007), 72.

[li] Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, USA, 2000), 55.

[lii] Braak, “Nietzsche, Christianity and Zen on redemption,” 11.

[liii] Keown, Buddhism, 46.

[liv] Ibid., 53.

[lv] Ibid., 54.

[lvi] Ibid., 56.

[lvii] Ibid., 58.

[lviii] Ibid., 60.

[lix] Braak, “Nietzsche, Christianity and Zen on redemption,” 13.

[lx] Michael McGhee, “The Turn Towards Buddhism.,” Religious Studies 31, no. 1 (March 1, 1995): 73.

[lxi] Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism, 7.

[lxii] Ibid., 14.

[lxiii] Ibid., 15.

[lxiv] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (Digireads.com, 2010), 17.

[lxv] Ibid.

[lxvi] Morrison, Nietzsche and Buddhism, 224.

[lxvii] Ibid., 217.

[lxviii] Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, 66-67.

[lxix] Urpeth and Lippitt, Nietzsche and the Divine, 182.

[lxx] Ibid.

[lxxi] Ibid., 183.

[lxxii] Ibid., 187.

[lxxiii] Ibid., 190.

[lxxiv] Braak, “Nietzsche, Christianity and Zen on redemption,” 5.

[lxxv] Ibid., 8.

[lxxvi] Ibid., 12.

[lxxvii] Ibid., 10.

[lxxviii] John Charles Evans, “Nietzsche on Christ vs. Christainity,” 572.


Bloom, Harold. Friedrich Nietzsche. Infobase Publishing (Facts on File/Chelsea House), 1987.

Braak, Andre van der. “Nietzsche, Christianity and Zen on redemption.” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 18, no. 1 (January 1, 2008): 5-18.

Copleston, Frederick. History of Philosophy, Volume 5. Image, 1993.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Harpercollins College Div, 1977.

Heimbigner, Kent A. “Nietzsche on Christianity: a baptismally informed analysis.” Logia 13, no. 1 (January 1, 2004): 35-45.

Hill, Kevin R. Nietzsche: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum, 2007.

Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton University Press, 2002.

Keown, Damien. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, USA, 2000.

McGhee, Michael. “The Turn Towards Buddhism..” Religious Studies 31, no. 1 (March 1, 1995): 69-87.

Morrison, Robert G. Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities. Oxford University Press, USA, 1999.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Unabridged. Dover Publications, 1997.

———. Nietzsche: The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols: And Other Writings. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

———. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Vintage, 1989.

———. The Will to Power. Digireads.com, 2010.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Thus spoke Zarathustra: a book for everyone and no one. Penguin, 1961.

Urpeth, Jim, and John Lippitt. Nietzsche and the Divine. Clinamen Press Ltd., 2000.

Vattimo, Gianni. Nietzsche: An Introduction. 1st ed. Stanford University Press, 2002.

Vattimo, Gianni, and William McCuaig. Dialogue with Nietzsche. Columbia University Press, 2008.

Westphal, Merold. “Nietzsche as a theological resource..” Modern Theology 13, no. 2 (April 4, 1997): 213.

Alan Badiou on Saint Paul’s Event: A New Christian Politic?


How does one construct a subject in a world where the subject has been deconstructed?  Why should I fight for this group or that, when history has shown all too clearly that all political projects are partial and fragmented, often birthed out of superficial identities?  Removing the mediating factors, could an event enable such a construction?  Could Paul, the alleged poet-thinker of the Event, be the “metaphysician” for such a task, after the end of metaphysics?  It has been contended that there must be something to give a common sense of solidarity for protest.  Cultural and victimist theories of humanity will not do for Alan Badiou:  “It will be objected that, in the present case, for us ‘truth’ designates a mere fable.  Granted, but what is important is the subjective gesture grasped in its founding power with respect the generic conditions of universality . . . [but] the progressive reduction of the question of truth (and hence, of thought) to a linguistic form, judgment . . . ends up in a cultural and historical relativism.”[i] On the other hand:

What is the real unifying factor behind this attempt to promote the cultural virtue of oppressed subsets, this invocation of language in order to extol communitarian particularisms (which, besides language, always ultimately refer back to race, religion, or gender)?  It is, evidently, monetary abstraction, whose false universality has absolutely no difficulty accommodating the kaleidoscope of communitarianisms.  The lengthy years of communist dictatorship will have had the merit of showing that financial globalization, the absolute sovereignty of capital’s empty universality, had as its only genuine enemy another universal project . . . and it is certainly not by renouncing the concrete universality of truths in order to affirm the rights of “minorities,” be they racial religious, national, or sexual, that the devastation will be slowed down.  No, we will not allow the rights of true-thought to have as their only instance monetarist free exchange and its mediocre political appendage, capitalist-parliamentarianism, whose squalor is even more poorly dissimulated behind he fine word ‘democracy.’[ii]

We learn of Badiou’s political concerns and critiques early on in his book on Paul in a section where he talks about the situation in France.  More generally – applying the France case writ large – Badiou describes two opposing tendencies in the globalized world.  There is on the one hand “an extension of the automatisms of capital,” which imposes the rule of abstract homogenization, and on the other hand ”a process of fragmentation into close identities, and the culturalist and relativist ideology that accompanies this fragmentation”; and Badiou argues that both processes are “perfectly intertwined.”[iii]  They are parasitic upon each other.[iv]  This is because every identity, community or territory that asserts itself becomes vulnerable to exploitation by providing the potential commercialization of itself by the market.  The more recognition a group demands, the more movie tickets, “action figures,” and the more overpriced hybrid cars will be sold.  Badiou says Deleuze put it best: “capitalist deterritorialization requires a constant reterritorialization.”[v]  For in the end, what most political subjects want is equal inclusion in and exposure to the whole with everybody else.  Accordingly, Badiou is asserting that no universalizable truth can be sustained in such a system.  Furthermore, it disallows for coalition-building and instigating revolution.

So Capitalism doesn’t recognize anything singular; it objectivizes and turns particular identities into numbers while competing identities serve the very cause of the capital they seek to undermine and oppose. Unification and fragmentation are not two different processes in this perpetual cycle.  Thus Badiou acutely identifies humanity’s natural inclination toward collective egoism.  Hence, the question arises: how to avoid oscillating between these reciprocally maintained ends, where each side subsists by discrediting the other or subsuming everything into a vacant totality?  Or, to state Badiou’s thesis question, “what are the conditions for a universal singularity?”[vi] Another way of putting it would be: how can one transcend both the general and the particular?  It is precisely at this point that Badiou engages the apostle Paul, whose foundation for universalism consists neither of the Jewish, legal, exceptional (circumcision) particular nor the general, Greek, philosophical (wise), moral universal.  Rather, Paul’s allegiance for Badiou is to the declared Event, which in Paul’s case happens to be the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


Event is not, as Badiou sees it, axiomatic or structural.[vii] The Event gives rise to a truth that “groups together all the terms of the situation which are positively connected to the event.”[viii]  In the Event, conditions of emergence are transcended and exceeded such that the conditions can be reconfigured afterwards.[ix]  It has the capacity to divide history in accordance with its own terms.[x]  Concurrently, it is essentially subjective, which is to say that the meaning and significance of the Event is dependent upon a conviction relative to it.  The Event is “what Badiou following Kierkegaard calls a ‘subjective possibility,’ without logical proof, conceptual consistency or empirical verification.”[xi] So the new discourse after the Event is proclaimed, not proven.  The Event is announced to all, and is without a historical subset; namely, no previously established community can possess it.  After the Event, there is neither Jew nor Greek, but the new.

At the same time, truth according to Badiou is not a momentary illumination so much as a process – a revolution.  So while the Event functions to disrupt, reconstitute and reformulate the duality of Jewish “election” and Greek “reason,” it is not wholly divorced from these pre-existing contexts.  Therefore fidelity to the declaration of the Event is crucial.[xii]  This fidelity is best understood as a conviction, Badiou says, which he takes from the Greek word pistis, or faith.  Slavoj Zizek helps with Badiou’s interpretation of Pauline Hope and Love in addition: “Hope is the hope that the final reconciliation announced by the Event (the Last Judgment) will actually occur; Love is the patient struggle for this to happen, that is, the long ad arduous work to assert one’s fidelity to the Event.”[xiii]

Finally, a Truth-Event is indifferent to circumstances like the Roman occupation for example.  It is subtracted and distanced from that system and as such does not compete with other opinions about the state of affairs – this would also be particular, and formulated by something like identity politics or the customs of a group such as the Judaizers in Galatia.[xiv] The declared Event cannot be domesticated because it is solid and timeless, “intelligible to us without having to resort to cumbersome historical mediations.”[xv]

In Richard Kearney’s interpretation of Badiou, the power (dunamis) of the cross that Paul speaks of “is this surplus of Spirit which defies the laws of rational understanding, represented by the Greek philosophical logos.  Invoking the language of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Badiou interprets this Christ-event in terms of the real which cuts across the law of language”:[xvi] “Interestingly, Badiou considers these aporias and paradoxes to be completely irreducible to hermeneutic mediation of any kind . . . Badiou is, it seems, an atheist of event rather than a theist of advent.”[xvii]

For this reason, it is admissible to suppose that Badiou is thinking not just about this Event, but Events for today as well.[xviii] The transcendence versus immanence distinction is replaced by a now and then distinction, whereby transcendence is historicized.  Geoffrey Holsclaw elucidates what is a crucial (and maybe injurious) feature of and Badiou’s account of the resurrection: “Badiou is against a Hegelian-Nietzschean capture of the resurrection as merely the sublimation of death, as the negation of negation (the object of Hegel’s praise and Nietzsche’s scorn).  In this way Badiou argues for a de-dialecticized Christ-event, which separates out the cross and death as merely the site for the event, and resurrection as the event itself.”[xix]  In the same vein, Badiou insists that Paul is not concerned with the resurrection as “an order fact, falsifiable or demonstrable,” but as pure event.[xx]  What concerns Badiou is form much more than content: “its genuine meaning is that it testifies to the possible victory over death, a death that Paul envisages . . . not in terms of facticity, but in terms of subjective disposition.”[xxi]  Christ’s resurrection is a type, and according to Badiou, the meaning of which is obscure for Paul.[xxii]  The gospel news is strictly evental.

Paul is the apostle who names this possibility opened up by the event.  The pure faithfulness to this possibility is not determined by knowledge.  Instead it is dependent on evental grace, characterized by “foolishness” and “weakness” in contradistinction to “wisdom” and “power.”[xxiii]  This is what constitutes Paul as the anti-philosopher.  To repeat, he relies on neither “proof” (philosophers) nor “signs” (Jews).  Badiou even goes as far to say that Paul anticipated Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology – that is, thinking of God as one supreme Being among other beings rather than beyond or “without Being”[xxiv] (Jean-Luc Marion has criticized Heidegger himself, however, for making the very same mistake).[xxv]  Zizek puts forth a similar notion, in one sense, in his reading Job, wherein he describes Job’s friends as “onto-theologians” who both Job and God ultimately dismiss.[xxvi]

The focus on the evental nature of grace in Badiou’s reading of Paul stems from the division between “flesh” and “spirit,” which is not an equivalent to the Greek or Platonic juxtaposition of body and soul.  Based on Romans 8:6, Badiou can affirm with Paul that “setting the mind” on “flesh” leads to “death,” but thinking on “spirit” brings “life.”  This usage of “life” and “death” corresponds to what was mentioned above – the hope that humanity can now vanquish death and affirm life in the contingent sense, rather than by trusting in a literal or physical promise of resurrection.  Death and life are paths that can be chosen.  So finally, the duality is taken one step further by Badiou, from life/death to grace/law, because “the pure event can be reconciled neither with the natural Whole, nor with the imperative of the letter.”[xxvii]  Stated another way, totality and place become extraneous, creating space for our adoption as “sons,” or children – not philosophical disciples – who are loyal to the event that brings “sonship” for all.


It’s a useful and intriguing comparison to make here – which can also be made with Zizek as will be evident below – between how Badiou reads Paul and what Nietzsche thinks about Paul, as a dishonest Jew who hijacks Christianity and formulates the Church’s sick ideology that Jesus never intended.  How surprising it is that two materialists would have such divergent sentiments about the apostle – one in praise of and the other detesting him.

When Nietzsche exclaims that Paul “could make no use at all of the redeemer’s life” (Anti-Christ, 42), Badiou concedes by at least admitting that Paul’s doctrine is certainly not historical.[xxviii]  But these two interpreters of Paul part ways when they assess the implications of Paul’s position:  “If Nietzsche is so violent toward Paul, it is because he is his rival far more than an opponent.”[xxix]  In other words, Badiou characterizes Nietzsche as an individualist and Paul as a universalist.

Nietzsche’s accusation that Paul is promoting the hatred of life is in Badiou’s understanding completely the opposite of the apostle’s teaching:

[Paul is the one] for whom it is here and now that life takes revenge on death, here and now that we can live affirmatively, according to the spirit, rather than negatively, according to the flesh, which is thought of death.  For Paul, the Resurrection is that on the basis of which life’s center of gravity resides in life, whereas previously, being situated in the Law, it organized life’s subsumption by death.[xxx]

Against a major stream of historical Christian theology, Badiou agrees with Nietzsche that suffering and death ought not be conceived as redemptive.  This is not  where Badiou and Nietzsche differ.  Badiou supports his own analysis in defense of Paul by pointing out the chronology of the Gospels and Paul’s epistles.  If there is a disparity, the Gospels cannot be said to have been the “originals,” because their authorship is dated some twenty years later.  This would seem to weaken Nietzsche’s claim that Jesus was misappropriated by Paul.  Nietzsche isn’t concerned with textual criticism though, and he admits as much.

And regarding the individualist/universalist distinction noted above, Badiou underscores Nietzsche’s disgust with Paul’s rebellion against “everything privileged” (Anti-Christ, 46).  But unlike Nietzsche, Badiou welcomes this aspect of Paul – as should be expected based on his philosophy of the Event – by holding tightly to the belief that “God shows no partiality” (Rom 2.10):

“[T]he Christ-event establishes the authority of a new subjective path over future eras.  The fact that we must serve a truth procedure is not to be confused with slavery [something Nietzsche seems to project onto Paul, according to Badiou], which is precisely that from which we are forever released insofar as we all become son of what has happened to us.  The relation between lord and servant differs absolutely between master and disciple, as well as from that between owner and slave.  It is not a relation of personal, or legal, dependence.  It is a community of destiny in that moment in which we have to become a “new creator.”  That is why we need retain of Christ only what ordains this destiny, which is indifferent to the particularities of the living person: Jesus is resurrected; nothing else matters, so that Jesus becomes like an anonymous variable, a “someone” devoid of predicative traits, entirely absorbed by his resurrection.”[xxxi]

Paul emphasizes rupture rather than continuity with Judaism in Badiou’s reading.  Contrarily, despite the fact that both Badiou and Agamben wish to employ Paul for contemporary political purposes, Agamben locates in Paul’s writing a concept of “messianic time,” which is a way of relating to time in the now, irrespective of the evental truth proclaimed by Badiou.  Moreover, identity is not subordinated for Agamben to the degree that it is for Badiou.  It is suspended, rather than directly overcome, and certainly not erased.  Without giving a satisfactory overview of Agamben’s position, and hopefully in spite of his bias, Zizek’s rhetoric can perhaps further illuminate some of the differences between Badiou and Agamben:

“What if the way to found a new religion is precisely through bringing the preceding logic (in this case, of Jewish messianism) to its end?  What if the only way to invent a new universality is precisely through overcoming the old divisions with a new, more radical division which introduces an indivisible remainder into the social body?  What if the proclamation of a new identity and of a new vocation can take place only if it functions as the revoking of every identity and every vocation?  What if the truly radical critique of the Law equals its opening toward a se beyond every system of law?  Furthermore, when Agamben introduces the triad of Whole, Part, and Remainder, is he not following the Hegelian paradox of a genus which has only one species, the other species being the genus itself?  The remainder is nothing other than the excessive element which gives body to the genus itself, the Hegelian “reflexive determination” in the guise of which the genus encounters itself within its species.”[xxxii]

Accordingly, Badiou’s view depends on the singular (again, not particular) Christ-event from which a universal declaration has been made, which abolishes the law and makes possible the traversing (not ignoring or eliminating) of all differences on the grounds of loyalty and commitment to the Resurrection, or to life, and the immanent distribution of revolutionary doing.[xxxiii]


Zizek sees that for Badiou the Event emerges ex nihilo, as an intervention from Outside or Beyond.[xxxiv]  Said differently, “the subject is strictly correlative with the ontological gap between the universal and the particular.”[xxxv]  What is left is not mere subjective faithfulness in response, however – as if the subject determines the event itself – but rather, because the Event transcends the subject, a quest of sorts is initiated to discern the “signs of Truth” amidst the finite multiple of a situation, and the resurrection Event is the situational example par excellence.[xxxvi]  According to Zizek, Badiou is after a “politics of Truth” in the modern state of global contingency that avoids subjugation to the postmodern dogma that would regard any reference to the transcendent or metaphysical as destined for totalitarianism.[xxxvii]  Zizek highlights one of Badiou’s brilliant theses – namely, that infinite complexity fails to provide the dignity of a proper object of thought.[xxxviii]  Badiou and Zizek both reject the supposed imperative that “the principal ethico-political duty is to maintain the gap between the Void of the central impossibility and every positive content giving body to it – that is, to never fully succumb to the enthusiasm of hasty identification of a positive Event with the redemptive Promise that is always ‘to come’” (a reference to Derrida).[xxxix]

The Event possesses a certain undecidability because it lacks an ontological guarantee.[xl]  It includes its own referent, which is a Void, until its goal is reached.  The Event must be understood on its own terms and not as just a semblance determined by a subjective vantage point: “Badiou insists on the immanence of the Truth-Event . . . for the agents themselves, as opposed to external observers.”[xli]  Thus the evental quality is solidified by the community that has been held together by the Event and engaged on its behalf.  There needs to be a group of believers!  But because Badiou and Zizek accept the modernized “rules of science,” the resurrection Truth-Event itself can only be a semblance after all.[xlii]

Like Badiou, Zizek finds Paul to be:

[U]nexpectedly close to his great detractor Nietzsche, whose problem was also how to break away from the vicious cycle of the self-mortifying morbid denial of Life: for him the Christian ‘way of the Spirit’ is precisely the magic break, the New Beginning that delivers us from this debilitating morbid deadlock and enables us to open ourselves to the Eternal Life of Love without Sin (i.e., Law and the guilt the Law induces).[xliii]

From here Zizek inverts the famous Dostoevsky quote about God’s existence and declares that for Paul, “since there is the God of Love, everything is permitted” (emphasis added) – a statement that might cause Nietzsche role over in his grave.[xliv]


Zizek, following Lacan, does differ from Badiou in at least one important respect.  Unlike Badiou, Zizek considers conceiving of the subject as the act and gesture that both creates and heals the ontological gap to be a fatal trap.[xlv]  As Zizek has it, by collapsing the two (the Event and the naming of the Event), Badiou’s subject becomes the very Void or Gap itself, and “by means of a short circuit between the Universal and the Particular,” the subject fills or heals the Void at the same time by its fidelity to the Void.[xlvi]  In this sense, the subject is a ‘vanishing mediator’ between being and the event[xlvii] (it is also an invisible third term between Judaism and Christianity).[xlviii] Because the subject becomes an entity that is consubstantial with the structure – in its faithfulness to the Event that makes the Gap – the result is a new hegemony and as the subject’s act to fill the Gap retroactively preserves and maintains it.[xlix]

Zizek, on the other hand, along with Lacan, wishes to make the point that “‘subject’ designates the contingency of an Act that sustains the very ontological order of being,” rather than causing the subject to be “inscribed into the ontological structure of the universe as its constitutive Void.”[l]  Act is only a negative category for Lacan and Zizek, so the Gap or Void is supposed to be transposed from their point of view, not healed.  This is why Zizek focuses more on death, while Badiou emphasizes the resurrection. As Geoffrey Holsclaw frames it, “Rather than the reactionary approach of hostility instituting a new order around the truth-event of resurrection [a la Badiou], Zizek sees in Lacan the truly radical and perpetual gesture of death, a death escaping the dialectic of law and desire.”[li] This gets back to the critical Lacanian distinction between the act as object and the naming of it in a positive Truth-procedure, the latter of which is only a negative gesture of discontinuity.[lii]


Writing from a Christian point of view, I echo Stephen Fowl and welcome these philosophers with hospitality to an encounter with the Christian faith and its Scripture.[liii]  Moreover, I confess upfront my limited familiarity with Badiou’s expansive work outside of his brief book on Paul, and certainly do not mean to apply any criticism to him as a philosopher or to his exceptional scholarship in general.  Lastly, it’s worth underscoring once more that Badiou is explicit and transparent about the extent to which he is demythologizing Paul and Christianity in general, so he should not be accused of any covert attempt to usurp the epistles or the tradition.  But as Paula Fredriksen put it, this is tolerable “if only they would confess that it is they who speak, not the apostle.”[liv]

While it is clear that Badiou does not intend to completely discount or subsume Paul’s context,[lv] Caputo says it well when he describes events: “Events are like metaphors; they have to differ from their existing discourse while having enough purchase in the existing discourse to be recognized as a metaphor.  They must have enough of a an anchor in the existing usage for their novelty to be felt or for them to have any bite; otherwise, they are just gibberish.”[lvi]  Another fair critique of both Badiou and Zizek’s construal of Paul is brought by Dale Martin when he says the following:

[S]o many of Paul’s current philosophical readers get him wrong on one very important point: their desire to see in him the founder of a new people, a new ethnicity, a new religion.  For not only is Paul constrained by his eschatology from announcing the establishment of the kingdom of God in the Church, he is also prohibited from proclaiming a new people or a new religion because of his faithfulness to Israel and the God of Israel.[lvii]

First, this constraint Martin speaks of on the eschatological announcement is critical.  One finds it in Paul here:

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it m own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:10-12, NRSV).

We see that salvation is not something possessed or achieved in the past for Paul – the issue of justification notwithstanding – but rather that it has not yet been obtained.  It is a future hope to which Paul orients himself in the process of transformation, and Badiou does recognize this.  What problematizes his reading of Paul further, however, is extent to which Badiou cannot reconcile Paul’s discussion of suffering with this very process – a process that has always been central to the Christian tradition’s understanding of discipleship.

Concerning the separation that Badiou and Zizek make between Judaism and Christainity, the feminist Pauline scholar Davina Lopez agrees, but not without qualification: “assimilation into one stereotype will not accomplish the goal of solidarity among the defeated.”[lviii]  She goes on to say, however, that even from the Christian viewpoint, Judaism for Paul was not necessarily meant to be overcome.  In this regard, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class, religion, and so on (Gal 3:28) are not irrelevant, but the contemporary, “progressive” reduction of the truth question to a linguistic form must likewise be withstood.[lix]   Both can be upheld, in other words, without such a violent break.  Collapsing differences leads to silence, so one still needs to hold the two in tension.[lx] The philosophy of the Event tends to praise the novel, and this can easily be taken too far.  At the same time, while one should wonder how much rupture there really was between Paul and the Jerusalem church as recorded in Acts, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Daniel Boyarin for instance have commented on this issue with respect to the Jewish-Christian context, and in their critiques, they might be subtracting Paul from his Christianity too much.[lxi]

What is more, one can get the impression from Badiou that the Law is something bad, which Paul fervently wants to supersede, but this is not entirely accurate.  There is nothing “wrong” with the law as far as Paul is concerned.  It does however hold people in bondage; therefore it is the separation from God that must be overcome – not the law as such.

It is along similar lines that Gordon Zerbe charges Badiou with seriously misunderstanding Paul’s talk about the interrelationship between the cross, resurrection, and suffering.  Zerbe argues that Badiou is preoccupied with “the specter of some Nietzschean resentment, hatred of life, as a driving force in Paul’s life and thought.”[lxii]  Zerbe goes on to say that Badiou, “unlike Taubes . . . cannot appreciate Paul’s emphasis on true solidarity with the world’s outcasts as the prime mode of messianic existence,” because for Badiou, “evental truth declaration in the [formal] modality of weakness does not correspond to one of lived weakness.”[lxiii] Any embrace of the cross as a model of messianic existence in Badiou’s mind is collapsed into a masochistic embrace of suffering, and this is Badiou’s grave mistake in Zerbe’s view.  Zerbe instead understands Paul’s counter-imperialism not to be derived from some kind hunger for revenge or from envy, as Nietzsche would have it, but from “his articulation of the messianic glad tidings.”[lxiv]

In response to Badiou and others, Richard Kearney has proposed instead what he calls a  “micro-eschatology of the possible:

[God’s power] clearly is not the imperial power of a sovereign; it is a dynamic call to love that possibilizes and enables humans with to transform their world by giving itself to the least of these, by empathizing with the disinherited and the dispossessed, by refusing the path of might and violence, by transfiguring the mustard seed into the kingdom, each moment at a time, one act after an other, each step of the way.  This is the path heralded by the Pauline God of ‘nothings and nobodies” (ta me onto) excluded from the triumphal pre-eminence of totality (ta onta) – kenotic, self-emptying, crucified God whose weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:25). It signals the option for the poor, for non-violent resistance and revolution taken by peacemakers and dissenting “holy fools” from ancient to modern times.  It is the message of suffering rather than doing evil, of loving one’s adversaries, of no enemies, of soul force (satyagraha) . . . the God witnessed here goes beyond the will to power.”[lxv]

Kearney’s understanding of God disallows for his intervention in situations like the Holocaust, because if ever there was a time for God to act, it was then.  Drawing on Psuedo-Dionysius and Nicholas of Cusa, Kearney asserts that God is not omnipotent in the traditional metaphysical sense, nor responsible for evil.  Thus he concludes: “[I]f God’s loving is indeed unconditional, the realization of that loving posse in this world is conditioned upon our response.  If we are waiting for God, God is waiting for us.  Waiting for us to say yes, to hear the call and to act, to bear witness, to answer the posse with esse, to make the world flesh – even in the darkest moments.”[lxvi]  This approach has some resonance with Badiou and Zizek, which Caputo notes by pointing out a connection between Zizek and Bonhoeffer: “God expects us to assume the responsibility for direction of our lives and not wait for him to show up in the nick of time to bail us out . . . [and for Zizek] the death of Christ is the beginning of the kingdom of God on earth, which we are responsible to realize.”[lxvii] Nonetheless, what Kearney has in mind would likely not permit coercion or revolution, but rather consistent in an eschatology of “little things” like the mustard seed, the coin, and the buried treasure.[lxviii]

Stephen Fowl submits that if one were to summarize Paul’s message in one phrase, it should be that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” instead of “Jesus is resurrected” as Badiou contends.  Taking this beyond what Fowl deduces, however, the former announcement is arguably much more subversive in the Roman context – a context about which Badiou is fairly silent.  If followers are so bold to declare that it is not Caesar that commands real power, but Christ, wouldn’t this sanction the most fervent confrontation with the rulers of the known-world?  But as is the general consensus in contemporary Pauline scholarship, Paul does not intend a revolution in the sense that Badiou imagines, if for no other reason than because of his expectation of the imminent parousia of Christ.

And is it not the case that “for Paul, the character of love, which is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:10), is inseparably bound to the other-regarding, self-offering death of Christ, who is the telos of the law (Rom 10:4)”?[lxix] As Douglas Harink has said, this is the part of Paul’s thought which Badiou eschews.  And is indifference to difference really what Paul means by love?  Does Badiou successfully conceive of difference in terms of non-competitive relationships, as he wants to claim?[lxx]

Badiou’s eradication of differences diminishes the role that reconciliation must play, not only between God and humanity – granting that this is a relationship Badiou is not addressing – but between individuals and groups of people.  “Slave vs. free,” for instance, is not a disparity that can be easily resolved.  This propels the discussion into another realm that Badiou unsatisfactorily considers.  How does Badiou’s Event offer a path through which the victim and victimizer may become equally filiated to the Truth?[lxxi]  It is hard to imagine how these “sins” committed against human beings by other human beings can merely be forgotten without a more robust notion of reconciliation.  This is partly why Christians find so compelling the belief that it is God who must act and has acted.

One can still sympathize strongly with Badiou’s concerns – particular regarding capitalism and its empty promises, as well as with respect to the paralyzing nature of identity politics in its feeble attempts at resistance to the ever-adapting free market.  Moreover, some impatience and frustration with the theological pushback against Badiou’s appropriation of Paul from guardians of the tradition is indeed justified, especially in view of the complacent, if not complicit and comfortable stance most churches in the United States for instance have taken toward the reign of global capital.  At best, these churches might lament the misfortunes of the marginalized and give petty alms to assuage their own conflicted consciences, but rarely is real change ever made.  It is no wonder then where the incentive comes from for the very militant employment of Paul’s evental structure by Badiou, who is obviously impressed by the apostle’s community organizing skills.

A look at Neil Elliot’s feedback, who writes to represent the Marxist perspective and with similar convictions to Badiou’s, is fitting at this juncture:

Capitalism’s universalism is hollow because it enfranchises only those who submit themselves to the inexorable logic of the market.  Law becomes a device for distinguishing those to whom material resources may be allocated, for a price, from those who must be excluded.  Human wellbeing is not the measure of economic health; rather it is the free flow of capital, which requires increasing restriction on the movements of human beings.[lxxii]

In the present day United States, we face a comparable quandary to that of Paul’s congregations living in Roman territory, in which the interests of the elites of the “private sector” are privileged and promoted over and against the popular will, all under the guise of ‘The Republic’:  “For Paul to proclaim that just such a body [that of a slave/conquered subject], inscribed in death . . . by the power of the Empire, had been raised from the dead by God, and that this divine act established the true filiation of a free people regardless of their ascribed status in the Roman symbolic economy – this was inherently and irreducibly subversive.”[lxxiii]

Not wanting to completely disqualify Badiou’s deployment of Paul, Elliot does link what Badious does to Jon Sobrino’s theological effort through a political creatio ex nihilo of no salvation outside (or apart from) the poor.[lxxiv]  Elliot suggests that Sobrino’s distillation of Paul to the start of a new, alternative community of solidarity with a civilization of poverty is more historically defensible.  Zizek on the other hand might receive a more favorable review from those concerned about subaltern geopolitics of knowledge.  Geoffrey Holsclaw shows how for Zizek the void in between God and humanity is internal to God on the cross of Christ, which is in himself.  But Holsclaw goes on to say that “rather than the death of God leading to our freedom from him, Zizek claims that the death of God, and our participation in that death, allows us to suspend the symbolic law, just as Christ did.”[lxxv]  Because Zizek invokes God’s self-emptying in Jesus’ as a radical immanentization that confirms the Void and empowers a community to live “as if not” in some sense, liberationists and Marxists are more likely to welcome and benefit from this reading, as there is noticeable overlap between them.[lxxvi]


So while Christian exegetes are faulting Badiou for not giving due diligence to the Jewish theological context that was inextricably linked to Paul’s talk of the Christ-event (especially those aligned with the “New Perspective”), post-colonial theorists and/or Marxists readers of Paul will censure Badiou for not accounting for the political dimensions and ideologies at play in the Roman setting.  Both reproaches appear to have their merit, and thus it seems appropriate to unite them and render a fairly synthesized conclusion.

Insofar as anyone defending a traditional view of Paul’s discussion of the death and resurrection of Jesus has failed to diagnose the pathology of the local churches in the imperial West and their assimilation to colonial culture, such a conservationist position should be severely scrutinized, but necessarily without letting the proverbial baby be thrown out with the bath water.  Those like Elliot who call attention to the importance of cultural symbolism, rhetoric, and the political climate in Rome for grasping the meaning of Paul’s resurrection-talk and lordship language about Jesus are doing traditional interpreters an indispensable service.  What is perhaps a mistake, however, on this side, is the degree to which militantly-charged, would-be revolutionaries like Badiou, Zizek, Agamben, or anyone else, still reference Paul in such a way as to diminish his reliance on Christ’s relationship to God as authorizing justification and initiating a redemptive, salvific act that somehow atones for humanity’s sin and opens up the possibility for reconciliation between individuals and different people groups.  Additionally, properly doing justice to Pauline exegesis at minimum requires the acknowledgment – which is to say nothing about one’s own confession – of the promise of resurrection in which Paul and his congregations hoped would come for those who believe (hoi pisteuentes).

And so to finish by highlighting an alternative political project:  though he is primarily responding to Agamben and the notion of the messianic now (non) time, in light of everything mentioned thus far, I submit that what Paul Griffiths has aptly called “quietist” political action is a fitting Christian politic.  In my judgment it seems to capture a piece of each aforementioned criticism above.   And to be sure, what is being insinuating by such a phrase is not the promotion of anything “quiet” or “inactive,” but instead a political outlook that is indifferent to outcomes – not indifferent to action itself:

Political advocacy that is quietist with respect to interest requires of us a good deal of work . . . [but work in which we] are likely to have a more accurate understanding of the limits of our capacity to make accurate prospective judgments about the results of enacting one political proposal rather than another, than do those whose thinking hews to the ordinary consequentialist line.[lxxvii]

From a Pauline eschatological standpoint, it could be stated that while Badiou’s accent of the resurrection tends toward an overly realized eschatology, Zizek’s is under-realized.[lxxviii]  What Griffiths outlines here cuts right between these two extremes, prohibiting inactivity and apathetic inertia on the one hand, while precluding over-involvement that could taint the witness to the alternative, evental Christian community on the other hand.  The former behavior is energized by Paul’s discourse on love; the latter is constituted by faith and hope.  Such a balance is not dissimilar to what Paul himself commissioned.

[i] Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, 1st ed. (Stanford University Press, 2003), 6.

[ii] Ibid., 6-7.

[iii] Ibid., 9-10.

[iv] Neil Elliott, Ideological Closure in the Christ-Event: A Marxist Response to Alain Badiou’s Paul in Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision: Critical Engagements with Agamben, Badiou, Zizek and Others (Cascade Books, 2010), 138.

[v] Badiou, Saint Paul, 10.

[vi] Ibid., 13.

[vii] Ibid., 14.

[viii] Alain Badiou and Oliver Feltham, Being and Event (Continuum, 2007), 335.

[ix] Hans Dieter Betz, “Saint Paul: the foundation of universalism,” Journal of Religion 85, no. 2 (April 1, 2005): 304-305.

[x] Mike Mawson, “Saint Paul: the foundation of universalism,” Stimulus 12, no. 4 (November 1, 2004): 47.

[xi] Richard Kearney, “Paul’s Notion of Dunamis: Between the Possible and the Impossible,” in St. Paul among the Philosophers (Indiana University Press, 2009), 148.

[xii] Badiou, Saint Paul, 15.

[xiii] Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (Second Edition), Second Edition. (Verso, 2009), 135.

[xiv] Badiou, Saint Paul, 29.

[xv] Ibid., 36.

[xvi] Kearney, “Paul’s Notion of Dunamis: Between the Possible and the Impossible,” Caputo and Alcoff, St. Paul among the Philosophers, 138.

[xvii] John D. Caputo and Linda Martín Alcoff, St. Paul among the Philosophers (Indiana University Press, 2009), 149-150.

[xviii] Badiou, Saint Paul, 110-111.

[xix] Geoffrey Holsclaw, “Subject between death and resurrection: Badiou, Žižek, and St. Paul,” in Paul, philosophy, and the theopolitical vision (Eugene, Or: Cascade, 2010), 159.

[xx] Badiou, Saint Paul, 45.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Alan Badiou, “St. Paul, Founder of the Universal Subject,” in St. Paul among the Philosophers, (Indiana University Press, 2009) 29.

[xxiii] Ibid., 47.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-Texte (University Of Chicago Press, 1995).

[xxvi] Slavoj Zizek, “From Job to Christ,” in St. Paul among the Philosophers, (Indiana University Press, 2009).

[xxvii] Badiou, Saint Paul, 57.

[xxviii] Ibid., 61.

[xxix] Ibid., 62.

[xxx] Ibid., 63.

[xxxi] Ibid., 63.

[xxxii] Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (The MIT Press, 2003), 108.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 84.

[xxxiv] Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, 130.

[xxxv] Ibid., 158.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 130.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 131.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 133.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Ibid., 136.

[xli] Ibid., 140.

[xlii] Ibid., 143.

[xliii] Ibid., 150.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Ibid., 159.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Geoffrey Holsclaw, “Subject between death and resurrection: Badiou, Žižek, and St. Paul,” 158.

[xlviii] Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, 145.

[xlix] Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, 159.

[l] Ibid., 160.

[li] Holsclaw, “Subject between death and resurrection: Badiou, Žižek, and St. Paul,” 164.

[lii] Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, 167.

[liii] Stephen Fowl, “A Very Particular Universalism: Badiou and Paul” in Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision (Eugene, Or: Cascade, 2010), 120.

[liv] Caputo and Alcoff, St. Paul among the Philosophers, 19.

[lv] Ibid., 162.

[lvi] Ibid., 4.

[lvii] Dale B. Martin, “The Promise of Teleology, the Constraints of Epistemology, and Universal Vision in Paul,” in St. Paul among the Philosophers, (Indiana University Press, 2007), 98.

[lviii] Davina C. Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimaging Paul’s Mission, illustrated edition. (Fortress Press, 2008), 147.

[lix] Badiou, Saint Paul, 6.

[lx] Dale B. Martin, “The Promise of Teleology, the Constraints of Epistemology, and Universal Vision in Paul,” 98.

[lxi] Jean-Francois Lyotard and Eberhard Gruber, The Hyphen : Between Judaism and Christianity (Humanity Books, 1999); Daniel Boyarin, “Paul among the Antiphilosophers; or Saul among the Sophists,” in St. Paul among the Philosophers, (Indiana University Press, 2009).

[lxii] Gordon Zerbe, “On the exigency of a messianic ecclesia: an engagement with philosophical readers of Paul,” in Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision (Eugene, Or: Cascade, 2010), 279.

[lxiii] Ibid.

[lxiv] Ibid.

[lxv]  Richard Kearney, “Paul’s Notion of Dunamis: Between the Possible and the Impossible,” 155.

[lxvi] Ibid., 156.

[lxvii] Ibid., 12.

[lxviii] Ibid., 157.

[lxix] Stephen Fowl, “A Very Particular Universalism: Badiou and Paul,” 124.

[lxx] Ibid., 129.

[lxxi] Ibid., 133.

[lxxii] Neil Elliott, “Ideological closure in the Christ-event: a Marxist response to Alain Badiou’s Paul,” in Paul, philosophy, and the theopolitical vision (Eugene, Or: Cascade, 2010), 141,

[lxxiii] Ibid., 145.

[lxxiv] Jon Sobrino, No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays (Orbis Books, 2008).

[lxxv] Holsclaw, “Subject between death and resurrection: Badiou, Žižek, and St. Paul,” 166.

[lxxvi] Elliott, “Ideological closure in the Christ-event: a Marxist response to Alain Badiou’s Paul,” 153.

[lxxvii] Paul J. Griffiths, “The cross as the fulcrum of politics: expropriating Agamben on Paul,” in Paul, philosophy, and the theopolitical vision (Eugene, Or: Cascade, 2010), 192-193.

[lxxviii] Holsclaw, “Subject between death and resurrection: Badiou, Žižek, and St. Paul,” 171.

A Brief Systematic Theology



The Existential Crisis

On July 11, 1995, in Juarez, Mexico, Silvia Morales was reported to be missing.  At age sixteen she was a beautiful young woman and a good student.  She had left home the previous day as usual to work her shift at one of the many U.S. factories (maquiladores) recently built in the commercial aftermath of the North American Free Trade Agreement.  This time, however, she did not come home.  After months of her mother’s tireless searching and refusal to admit her likely death, local authorities eventually discovered her body.  It was clear from the autopsy that Silvia suffered brutal sexually violation, mutilation and torture before being strangled and left in the desert.  Estimates today suggest that since 1994 thousands of women have been victims of similar crimes in the border state of Chihuahua.  Very few of these cases have been or likely ever will be solved.

1.  Anthropology

It could be said from the perspective of the comfortable and the living that to speculate about the possibility or nature of afterlife is a futile endeavor.  One could posit that fulfillment and meaning in life are best sought by strictly attending to the present, for that is all that can be controlled.  This might be a viable argument if the horror like the one described above in the story about Silvia was fictional (it also might not be a viable argument even then).  Seeing as this is not so, however, one is inclined to suspect otherwise.

The human condition is such that we live with a kind of openness directed toward possibility in the world, always becoming.[i] Unlike animals, human beings have to some degree an undefined nature insofar as we are constantly adapting.  There is present a certain un-development over and against definite instinct.  One might also say, at least culturally speaking, that a process of “creative destruction” takes place, to borrow the term from economics, where old forms are replaced by new ones.

Kathryn Tanner fore example characterizes human nature as such not by sinfulness but as “prewired” for strong participation in the divine life, which renders weak participation doomed for contamination.  Classically speaking, and somewhat in contrast to Tanner, the Augustinian tradition understands humanity to be inherently depraved as a result of “original sin” or self-love.  Other modern theologians have described sin in essence as pride.[ii] David Kelsey defines sin as “distortion of trust in God,” and this is primarily what will be assumed from here onward.[iii] This distortion can result in trusting the identifies given to us by our vocations in the world as opposed to God on the one hand, or “trusting” God to the abandonment of responsibility to a historical situation on the other hand – both are forms of idolatry.  And finally, there is the sin of trusting only oneself.  Though not explicitly naming it sin, this threefold depiction of sin has consensus with Pannenberg who calls trust in finite things a perversion caused by humanity’s desire for control of life.[iv]

Along with this openness or possibility then necessarily follows, in part because of sin, a restlessness, or what different existentialists have termed “angst.”  Pannenberg interprets this to mean that humans are longing for, or even dependent upon something beyond what this world can offer: “What the environment is for animals, God is for humanity.”[v] Such a claim need not be individualistic, however, nor extra-worldly.  In the first place, human beings actually acquire interests and needs from their environment and social setting, and so it would be hasty to submit that one’s configured existence is solely a consequence of preference or choices.  Such is partly the significance of Heidegger’s constitution of Dasein or “being-in-the-world.”  Secondly, Pannenberg argues that “the community that humanity has with God directs humanity back into the world” (italics added).[vi]

Epicurus’ implores us not think about death while living, implying that it would diminish our enjoyment of life.  In a similar vein, Wittgenstein argues that no one experiences death.  Jurgen Moltmann is interested in challenging these claims.  In the first place, and in agreement with Pannenberg, one mustn’t allow thought of life after death to deprive vitality from the present.  Such preoccupation risks “fatalism and apathy,” rendering the here and now empty and merely transitional.[vii] On the other hand, however, Moltmann is confident that “the thought of death and a life after death doesn’t have to deflect us from this life; it can also give this life a new depth.”[viii] Such a depth can enable us to love more fully.  It might be inferred from Moltmann, and Pannenberg as well, that if one is not disturbed by the question of life after death, she is deceived and is rather only suppressing what is a natural yearning.

Furthermore, ignoring every deliberation about death, as Epicurus recommends, is to live under the illusion that life will not end, which is to potentially miss something quite invigorating that comes from the consideration of one’s finitude.  Perhaps no one understood this better than Heidegger:

“What is characteristic about authentic, existentially projected being-toward-death can be summarized as follows: Anticipation reveals to Da-sein its lostness in the they-self, and brings it face to face with the possibility to be itself, primarily unsupported by concern taking care of things, but to be itself in passionate anxious freedom toward death which is free of the illusions of the they, factical, and certain of itself.”[ix]

At the same time, it seems Moltmann would want to depart from Heidegger’s understanding of the experience of death insofar as Heidegger might be construing death to be one’s “ownmost potentiality-of-being” and “nonrelational” in a hyper-individualized or isolated fashion, though there are those who would criticize this reading of Heidegger.[x]

To some degree it is a modern and perhaps Western phenomenon for individuals to conceive of death in these terms.  Moltmann readily reminds us that Eastern cultures like that of Korea or those of Native Americans for instance are aware of the communal experience that is death and the relationship that one maintains with family, ancestors and tribe even afterwards.  Thus, for Moltmann it is appropriate and even beneficial to contemplate how the possibility or hope for life after death might inform and energize the present.  It is important though in Moltmann’s account of Christian eschatology to be mindful of what one actually longs for with desiring life after death.  Moltmann insightfully notes how the popular and in some sense traditional notion of a bodiless, and therefore mindless soul is in reality something rather inconceivable.[xi]

2. Eschatology

Returning to Silvia’s existential crisis, the question inevitably arises once more:  “Are the murderers to triumph irrevocably over their victims?  Can their death be their end?”[xii] In response, Moltmann citing Max Horhemer answers that theology “is the hope . . . that injustice will not be the last word . . . [it is] the expression of a longing that the murderer may not triumph over the innocent victim.”[xiii] This quite natural hope is what prompts Moltmann to accuse those who would “push away the question about the life of the dead” as being “profoundly inhumane.”[xiv] In this same line of thought, and in order to disavow the cynical offering of previous generations as victims on “the altar of the future,” Walter Kasper concurs: “Consequently, unless we are willing to cut hope in half, as it were, and limit it to a future generation and to those who are in the vanguard of progress, our hope must imply the God of hope who gives life to the dead.”[xv] In other words, sincere eschatological hope maintains that every person in history will have the chance to become who God intended her to be.

This hope today is especially born out of a deep concern for those in the third world for instance who far too often die “unnatural, premature, violent, and by no means affirmed death.”[xvi] It calls to mind and invokes the promise that just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too shall be resurrected and “bear the image of the heavenly man” with our spiritual bodies, which are not mindless bodies or separated from the soul (1 Cor 15:49, NIV).  It is exactly this assurance in things hoped for but not seen that permits Paul to learn “the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil 4:12) and to ask, quoting the prophet Hosea, “Where, O grave is your destruction?”

This belief in further compensation in the life hereafter is not only about redemption for Silvia.  There is a twofold function.  During the postexilic period in the Jewish community and to a degree the concurrent Platonism developing in Greek thought about the immortality of the soul, the idea arose for one to also trust that every individual will “receive what is due according to his or her deeds” (2 Cor 5:10).[xvii] Thus, God’s people also hold out for a final judgment, which is not necessarily to speak of an eternal fate.

The profundity of this anticipation is fortified when compared to the liberal tradition of expecting a realized, humanly constructed and worldly utopia.  But at least two obvious objections can be raised precisely at this point: First, in the postmodern era, how is one to envisage any grounds for sensible faith in such a speculative and arguably triumphal narrative?  Furthermore, doesn’t this kind of conjecture lead down the same devastatingly foundational and world-fleeing path that liberals, skeptics and post-structuralists alike are determined to avoid?  A thoroughgoing apology cannot be carried out here, but I will henceforth attempt to very briefly sketch a theological and expositional vision for a plausible Christian framework that both instantiates what has thus far been proposed and seriously considers these two aforementioned difficulties.

The Hebrew Scriptures testify to both the prophetic and the apocalyptic, which respectively reveal meaning and fulfillment.  In Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God, these two culminations (meaning and fulfillment) are historically separated such that one has come (meaning), and the other will come (fulfillment).[xviii] Each end corresponds to two different biblical motifs – meaning with “the suffering servant,” which constitutes the present, and fulfillment with “the Son of man,” which substantiates the future coming.[xix] With this assertion, Reinhold Niebuhr and Moltmann are in agreement that Schweitzer’s conception of Jesus’ ethic being based on the illusion of his proximate return is mistaken. Without the forecast of a new and transformed future, despair is immanent.  Nevertheless, “sin is overcome in principle but not in fact,” so the love of Christ “must continue to be suffering love rather than triumphant love” for now.[xx] We still wait for the day when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes” and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4).

A complete juxtaposition between “already” and “not yet” however is not appropriate.  There is a sense of a synthesis in which the God’s reigning is dawning.[xxi] But a full realization is not something humanity can bring about politically; rather, it will be a cosmic irruption of God’s initiation.  The injunction to humanity is therefore one for preparedness and a call to decision:[xxii] “The time has come, he said. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).  Hence, there is a unity between the eschatological and ethical in Jesus’ message, and this is the key to renouncing the liberal contention against proclaiming anything final.  We remember that Paul warns abrasively against idleness (2 Thess 3:11).  In this way, one can depart from a full demythologizing and still say with Bultmann himself that, “fulfillment of God’s will is the condition for participation in the salvation of His Reign.”[xxiii] Christians, conscious of their spiritual poverty (Matt 5:3), are to be liberated by grace from the grip of “superficiality and love of self and the world,” or sin, and empowered to embark on the impossible task of living like Christ as “merciful, pure of heart, and peace-making.”[xxiv]

Ultimately, never straying too far from Silvia’s predicament and the guilt of her perpetrators – the charge for sanctification and spiritual rebirth notwithstanding – the belief remains for God’s principle aim to be that of justice: “to put right what has gone awry, finish what was begun, pick up what was neglected, forgive the trespasses, heal the hurts, and be permitted to gather up the moment of happiness and to transform mourning into joy.”[xxv] If Silvia represents “the poor” defined broadly (Matt 5:1), then the pronouncement of the kingdom of God is not opposed merely to “the rich”, but those who make themselves rich at the expense of the poor.  Moltmann uses the phrase “the man of violence.”[xxvi] These oppressors are called to “change and seek liberating community with the poor if they are to be included as citizens of the kingdom.”[xxvii]

This kingdom Jesus brings is already solidified in the future, which means the status of the oppressed changes eschatologically [some text missing here].

Pannenberg on the other hand, while having much in common with Moltmann, lands faintly more on the side of openness to the future kingdom, indicating greater significance in what has not yet been disclosed.[xxxii] The character of God and the legitimacy of the entire Christian faith hang on the coming consummation of an unrealized, ontological priority of the future that must entail a new creation of the entire cosmos, when God will be all in all.[xxxiii] Thus, despite the fully present potential reality of the kingdom of God since Jesus’ ministry, Moltmann and Pannenberg both present what is truly a theology of hope.


The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.  For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. – Colossians 1:15-20

In light of the existential crisis of Silvia and the subsequent eschatological hope, from the Christian perspective one must now introduce a christology and soteriology almost simultaneously that coheres with the heretofore anthropological underpinnings. This is the third and fourth step together in the systematic progression that reaches the peak or center of the theological chiasm before descending back “down” toward the first doctrine.

3. Christology

The three offices of Christ as described by Thomas Torrance make for an excellent place of departure for a rough christological outline.  First, and most fittingly in view of Silvia, Christ assumes the role of prophet.  For Torrance the prophetic offices implies an incarnational assumption that has ontological consequences.  God became human through the hypostatic union, by what Athanasius called homoousion, and “was pleased to have his fullness dwell” in Christ.  Incarnation and atonement are inseparable, as Gregory of Nyssa claimed.  This phenomenon and breaking in or rupturing of God in history creates a new ontological horizon in an eternal present.  This is the logos made flesh as poetically illustrated in John’s prologue.  The divine act of love, humility, and self-emptying, from the hymn in the second chapter of Philippians, provides the initial performative act which establishes that solidarity between God and humanity that Silvia’s situation requires, such that she could reply:

“Away from me, all you who do evil, for the LORD has heard my weeping.
The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
They will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.” (Psalm 6:8-9).

The second office is that of the priest which “corresponds to the passive obedience of Christ, his submission to the Father’s judgment and his self-offering in sacrifice for our sins.”[xxxiv] The priestly function can be abused and misrepresented when the absorption of God’s wrath by the Son’s propitiation of sin is overemphasized.  This language is not absent from the New Testament, but a careful study of the Jewish sacrificial system can reveal possible alternative interpretations.  The violence against Silvia cannot be redeemed with more violence.  The passive obedience of Christ is a submission and non-violent protest to the violence of the world that would crucify the innocent victim or commit the atrocity against human dignity endured by Silvia.  In the work on the cross, Jesus condemns oppression, hatred, hypocrisy, and all kinds of evil.  In this respect the event is indeed a severe judgment on humanity’s failure to depend on and trust God, which can have terrible repercussions.

Thirdly Christ occupies the throne as king.  In some manner his reign has not yet come to the full fruition that the apocalypse foretells, but he nevertheless actively obeyed God, with subtle distinction from the passive priestly obedience, by conquering death in the resurrection and ascending to “the right hand of God,” which symbolizes the completion of incarnation by the return to glory. One has confidence in this event supplied by the testimony of the disciples and the early church, and most powerfully by the voice of the martyrs.  This third piece of the triplex munus (threefold office of Christ) is what most saves, but not without the other two parts enabling it. [xxxv] Thinking the three together gives a far richer comprehension of the atonement than by merely noting the various theories in themselves: exemplary, satisfaction/ransom, christus victor, penal substitution, and incarnation).[xxxvi] In sum, Christ shares in Silvia’s suffering, he judges her violator, and he raises her to new life.

4. Soteriology: The Climax

The soteriological outcome can be easily and similarly derived from this Christological portrait if thought in terms of three dimensions as well.  Firstly, “By grace through faith” in Christ’s action we are saved (past tense) – “not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8). In the second place, the “already accomplished” facilitates a saving or being saved that is worked out presently in “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) leaving no room for assurance to produce lethargy.  The first level of theory informs the second level of praxis, but both are reaching together for something more that has not arrived.  Further still one awaits the third level of the ever-elusive parousia, the coming of the basileia that will shatter every horizon, about and by which the children of God can confess “we will be delivered” (Dan 12:1).

I cannot help but suspect, without certainty, however, that the second two depend on the first – not for proof – but for deep coherence.  If Jesus isn’t the resurrected Christ, who in some definite sense overpowered death, then the naysayers might be right.  He would be another prophet, and maybe even the greatest, but not God incarnate.  Hope for Silvia fades in this view.  How could we ever expect our own resurrection?  This does not mean one should attempt to empirically verify the event, but to say that it doesn’t matter or that it’s a distraction, as some have, is devastating to this particular eschatology.

Along with Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Luke Timothy Johnson, and in contrast to Jesus Seminar leaders John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, Terrance Tilley asserts that, “it is unwarranted for historians to separate the historical-Jesus from the movement that remembered and imitated him in its distinctive practices.”[xxxvii] So “whatever one thinks of the historicity of the resurrection, followers of Jesus were convinced that their experiences of seeing him after his death grounded their devotion to him.”[xxxviii]

Another matter remains.  It is not sufficient to merely put forth what, how, and why Christ saves without exploring the “who” question – one that has plagued the Christian community since its inception.  It will be helpful to turn attention once more to Moltmann.  Regarding the notion that individual salvation is determined by every person’s decision in response to an invitation for faith, Moltmann answers:


Is this theologically conceivable?  Can some people damn themselves, and others redeem themselves by accepting Christ?  If this were so, God’s decisions would be dependent on the will of human beings.  God would become the auxiliary who executes the wishes of people who decide their fate for themselves.  If I can damn myself, I am my own God and judge.  Taken to a logical conclusion this is atheistic.[xxxix]


Here in response I wish to express both appreciation and dissatisfaction.  To be sure it might seem asinine at first to postulate that human beings are given so much freedom in their futility to solidify their own fate, which at this time might be best summarily condensed to one of either communion with God or separation from God.  Before expounding on the implications of Moltmann’s statement, a succinct elaboration on the concept of justification will facilitate the discussion.  Karl Barth understood that reconciliation happens first with God’s judgment upon the sinner, achieved by Christ’s death, and is followed by the verdict of this judgment, which is announced in the resurrection – this is the process by which humanity is justified.[xl] N.T. Wright, relying heavily on Alister McGrath, introduces it thusly: “the heart of the Christian faith in found in ‘the saving action of God toward mankind in Jesus Christ.’”[xli] He goes on to argue that there are a number of biblical metaphors to reference how God saves people through Christ, but none should be elevated about the others.  Some might say this was the overreaction of the Reformers.  McGrath himself as a reformed theologian concedes:

The “doctrine of justification” has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins, so that even if it could be shown that it plays a minimal role in Pauline soteriology, or that its origins lie in an anti-Judaism polemic quite inappropriate to the theological circumstances today, its significance would not be diminished as a result.

In an extremely terse treatment of the text, a key to the puzzle, or better said, mystery of salvation is found in a proper exegesis of Galatians where Paul addresses the problems caused by ethnic and cultural discrimination in a church of both Jews and Gentiles.  Works of the law are not what justify – this much is clear.  But what are the works of the law?  Abruptly understood, these works include “living like a Jew” and the separation from “Gentile sinners” in Galatians 2:14-15).[xlii] Reading Paul in this context,

We are forced to conclude, at least in a preliminary way, that “to be justified,” here does not mean “to be granted free forgiveness of your sins,” “to come into right relationship with God” or some other near synonym of “to be reckoned ‘in the right’ before God,” but rather, and very specifically, “to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.

This statement does not refute nor undermine Ephesians 2:8-9.  What it does do is liberate us from hegemonic hermeneutics, just as with the varying atonement theories or offices held by Christ; and what one does have is a plurality of word pictures and allegorical passages that bear witness to an incomprehensible truth.  Thus I’ve conveyed my appreciation for Moltmann’s suspicion about individual salvation above, but now I aim to articulate what I think is deficient in his remarks.

As long as Scripture in its whole is thoroughly reliable and authoritative – divergent interpretation notwithstanding, and even with other resources for hermeneutics like tradition, reason, and experience – one cannot in good conscience presume universal salvation. Universalism as dogma is reckless.  Rather, like Hans Urns von Balthasar, one can only dare to hope that all humanity be saved.  And just to clarify, “an absolutely firm conviction of the truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ need not undermine the truth of other religions.”[xliii] The warnings to evildoers throughout Scripture, however, are too numerous to ignore.  In my view the canonization of universalism, though far from the most threatening of deviations, inescapably disseminates complacency toward the responsibility of sharing the good news of the gospel and inviting others to participate in God’s mission of “reconciling all things” to God’s self.[xliv]

Concerning the human being’s response to God, Kasper says revelation exists in human, historical mediation so that the message is not concerned with theoretical speculation but is a “practical message of judgment because it ultimately says that man has no power over the mystery of God either through knowledge or through action.”[xlv] God confers revelation in order to evoke a decision from people.  Faith, therefore, is not a sheer momentary act of emotion, volition or comprehension, but encompasses all of these powers through an on-going choice and a “comprehensive mode of existing.”[xlvi] As this pertains to individual salvation, there is faint disparity between Kasper and Motlmann.

About the earliest Christians, the post-liberal theologian George Linbeck insightfully notices an “extraordinary combination of relaxation and urgency in their attitude toward those outside the church.”[xlvii] Without yet delving into ecclesiology, the “world mission” of Christians should be likewise.  Again, if one trusts God, both peace and exigency will rule – peace to believe God is just, and exigency to carry out the Great Commission by making disciples “as you go” (Matt 28:19).  The aim of outreach is not conversion but mutual understanding and transformation, but this does not prohibit extending an invitation to others to come, to lay down their lives life, and follow Jesus.  When it comes to interacting with other faith traditions, Moltmann decries any attempt to adhere to general pluralism and is representative of the view that “dialogue with other religions is not helped if Christians relativize that which is distinctively Christian.”[xlviii] Any comprehensively constructed theology today must confront the problem posed by religious pluralism, which is beyond the allotted scope here.  Suffice to say very inconclusively, however, that, as Moltmann insinuates, the God of Jesus Christ is merciful.

The end goal of a christological soteriology then is not the punishment of the man who killed Silvia, however unspeakable his deed.  His act was caught up in a whole web of violence.  No clear lines can be drawn from our perspective, demarcating the sheep from the goats and the wheat from chaff: “Judge not, or you too will be judged” (Matt 7:1).  In the words of H. Richard Niebuhr about Christ,

“his work is concerned not with the specious, external aspects of human behavior in the first place, but that he tries the hearts and judges the subconscious life; that he deals with what is deepest and most fundamental in man.  He heals the most stubborn and virulent human disease, the phthisis of the spirit, the sickness unto death; he forgives the most hidden and proliferous sin, the distrust, lovelessness, and hopelessness of man in his relation to God.”[xlix]


Once more drawing for the christological praise song in Paul’s letter to Colossians, one sees that “the Son is the eikona of the invisible God,” the image or icon by which we are able to say anything about the nature of the first person of the Trinity.  As Ian McFarland admits, “the iconodule argument that the incarnation creates a situation in which the whole material realm to be pressed into the service of imaging God would appear to suggest that genuine knowledge of God is now a universal human possibility.”[l] For this reason, McFarland advocates an apophatic christocentricism,[li] but this does not get divorced from the original existential crisis.  One knows already what the Pentateuch has professed: “The Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut 31:6).  The Minor Prophets declare: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2); and “The Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished” (Nah 1:3) as the God who liberates slaves.  Thus again even before the time of Christ the Jewish people acknowledged that Yahweh is faithful to the covenant and will both rescue Silvia and repay her attacker what is due him.

But God had not yet come.  The Spirit of God was there in the beginning (Gen 1:2), but she both came upon and forsook (2 Chron 24:20).  When Moses led the Israelites from Egypt out of bondage, she was powerfully present.  When Joshua commanded his armies to slaughter, she fled.  How can one say this? – Only by the ministry of Jesus which is the complete Revelation of this age, in whom God was pleased to fully dwell – our apophasis.  In this way he fulfilled Torah by surpassing it: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:43-45).  What is God like?  The answer, in a word, is Christ.  In a brilliant essay responding to Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology, Kathryn Tanner disagrees with Marion’s apophatic depiction of Christ and, depending on a close reading of Cappadocian Fathers like Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa, offers an alternative:


In Christ, humanity is exalted to its own full glory-Christ has a glorified humanity-by virtue of the fact that this human being is one with the second person of the Trinity. Finally, according to the account I am offering, the beauty and glory of the human form need not rival God’s, since God is the giver of it. Therefore God’s work is not done in the disfiguring of Christ-his beating, his scourging-that, for Marion, allows Christ’s humanity to become an icon referring attention entirely away from itself and only to the Father.[lii]

Embracing apophatic christocentrism permits a higher view of other religious icons (the Buddha, Mary, Krishna, Muhammad, and so on), but the Christian must concretely know God as the one who unbridles the chains of injustice and heals the broken, which was foretold in Isaiah and manifested in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  Thus, Tanner’s critique is duly noted.  Moreover, a devotion to Jesus then doesn’t have to contradict central tenants of Judaism.[liii] The same Spirit present in Jesus was always living and active.  In Christ “the prophet of Sophia [is] recognized as incarnating Wisdom who teaches the members of the movement not what is wise but how to exercise wisdom in practice . . . empower[ing] them to become creative and graceful reconciling agents of the commonweal divine”:[liv]

“For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of [the Lord’s] goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.” – Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-28

Without reducing her to Wisdom since this is also the divine Logos residing in Christ, the doctrine of the Triune God emerges with the action of God’s Spirit as the wooing and sanctifying agent of love in the present world.[lv] As Gustaf Aulen tells us through Irenaeus, “it is God Himself who enters into the world of sin and death for man’s deliverance, to take up the conflict with the powers of evil and effect atonement between Himself and the world.”[lvi] Balthsar speaks of God’s impassible suffering, a paradox that both conveys God’s immanence while guarding against anthropomorphic tendencies.  Perhaps it was best captured by Gregory of Nyssa when he spoke of “the lofty stoop[ing] to the lowly without losing its loftiness.”[lvii] Nonetheless, when it comes to God, because Jesus Christ is not exhaustive of God to us, we see now only dimly, returning to apophasis (1 Cor 13:12); but this same passage about love also signifies, as does the Johannine canon, that God is love, analogically.

Love evokes doxology.  It mystifies, and is not grasped or achieved in full.  So it is with God.  The language of praise and prayer and the proliferation of divine names in response to the revealed account of God in the tradition, in the Scriptures, in humanity’s finite reason and the experience of the Christian community through the centuries, becomes worship – worship because, to repeat, Silvia is set free, and what has gone awry will be restored to its original purpose, which is strong participation for the whole cosmos in the Divine life and communion with all of creation in God’s infinite freedom.[lviii]

What this love also does, however – intense as it is – necessitates the introduction of a third constituent of divine triadic unity as alluded to above with reference to Sophia.[lix]

This unicity of essence implies and includes the unicity of one single consciousness and one single freedom, although of course the unicity of one self-presence in consciousness and freedom in the divine Trinity remains determined by that mysterious threeness which we profess about God when we speak haltingly of the Trinity of persons in God.[lx]

An intricate elaboration on the doctrine of the immanent Holy Trinity, or “the inner life of God completely unrelated to us and to our Christian existence,” is unhelpful once the apophatic and mystical nature of God the Father is introduced.[lxi] This is what Karl Rahner calls the absolute holy mystery.  Consequently, one can deduce, as with Rahner and Tanner and in slight disagreement with Kasper, that for all intents and purposes, the economic Trinty is the immanent Trinity: “The psychological theory of the Trinity neglects the experience of the Trinity in the economy of salvation in favor of a seemingly almost gnostic speculation about what goes on in the inner life of God.”[lxii] Tanner too intends her own theology to function starting from what is most visible in Christ as the Word incarnate, which exhibits the general pattern of relationship with the other members of the Trinity.[lxiii]


“God presents himself to us little bit little.  The whole story of salvation is the story of God who comes.” – Carlo Carretto

Concerning the third agent, Ives Congar explains that “the action of the paraclete consists in urging the world to recognize its fault and to confess its guilt.”[lxiv] Never by encroaching on their freedom, the Holy Spirit guides and directs individuals in a subtle but sovereign fashion toward relationship with God by inviting repentance.[lxv] The Holy Spirit is the “immanent and anonymous presence of God.”[lxvi] God spoke through Ezekiel saying, “I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezek 11:19b).  The path of contrition is maneuvered by “walking according to the Spirit” (Gal 5:16), and the Spirit is “the principle of interior personal sanctification.”[lxvii] The fruit in the lives of all people and wherever there is holiness or purity of heart – the Spirit is the source.   The “already” and “not yet” age of the Spirit pulls and propels creation forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God.[lxviii]

Among the many telling biblical examples of this transforming process occurring are those of the Roman centurion Cornelius’ conversion (Acts 10) and Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19).  In the context of the latter narrative, Zacchaeus’ occupation in society was deeply entrenched in an exploitative and massively suppressive system of cruelty.  In the instance when Congar mentions this account, injustice and sin are used interchangeably.  Needless to say, Zacchaeus was a sinner, maybe not unlike the modern-day, corrupt Wall Street banker, dishonest lobbyist, or illegal arms and narcotics cartel leader – all of which are roles played by those complicit with the brutalities like the one that Silvia faced.

Similar to “posture of the heart” evidenced by the second thief on the cross, when Zacchaeus climb the tree to see Jesus, he becomes like “the man who knows how poor he is and who rejects all pride and self-sufficiency, even the pride of rags, the man who stands before God in his nakedness and his need – [and] that man knows the miracles of love and mercy, from the consolation of the heart and the illumination of the spirit to the allaying of hunger and thirst.”[lxix] When we cry out for help, it the Spirit that responds by bearing witness to our spirits that we are the children of God.  Even the sinners and tax collectors received mercy from Jesus.  Indeed, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13), but this is not a formula; nor does it take place in the economy of exchange.  The thief on the cross could not have known that Jesus was going to be raised from the dead.  He had no awareness of the creeds.  What distinguished him from the first man was he “feared God” like Cornelius.  Jesus tells him they will be together in paradise.  Nothing is mentioned about the fate of the first man, however, so the message is not one of exclusion.

The Spirit is “at the deepest level the longing that impels us toward God and causes us to end in him.”[lxx] Moreoever, Gregory of Nazianzus refers to a “gradual progress of the revelation of the mystery of God through the Old Testament to the New and in Christian reflection itself,” which both unifies and diversifies its manifestations.[lxxi] Identification of the Spirit’s work is rendered an ambiguous task in a limited sense.  On this idea, Congar and Kasper agree that one cannot point and say where it is (Luke 17:21).[lxxii] The Holy Spirit as comforter “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13-14).  Paul echoes Jesus by instructing his listeners to be taught by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:12-14), which depends and strengthens the faith of disciples.[lxxiii] Sometimes it is a “still, small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12), while in other cases the Spirit intercedes and prays for us in our weakness with groaning (Rom 8:26).[lxxiv]

The Spirit administers gifts to each person in the Church (1 Cor 12, Rom 12, Eph 4, 1 Pet 4), the purpose of which is the edification and building up of its members.  With respect to Church, which will receive more acute treatment below, the Holy Spirit animates the body of Christ, which is the Church. Where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church.[lxxv] In this way, the church can be identified, but one should be cautious before delimiting where it is not.[lxxvi] Those in whom Christ dwells by the power of the Holy Spirit can undergo theosis or deification, and the Spirit gathers together everything that is tending toward God.[lxxvii]


In her book, Discipleship of Equals, Schussler Fiorenza draws on J. Paul Sampley’s translation of the word koinonia or communion as “shared partnership and commitment,” and such consensual partnership is operative as long as the partners are of the “same mind” as when it was founded in the first place.  The common purpose and commitment of all Christians is . . .the witness to ‘the mystery of God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.’”[lxxviii] This definition corresponds closely with how Roger Haight through Schleiermacher construes the Church: “the institutionalization of the community of people who, animated by the Spirit of God, live in the faith that Jesus is the Christ of God.  The mission of the church is to continue and expand Jesus’ message in history.”[lxxix] In this first respect respect, the church makes proclamation.

Moreover though, the Church is not merely obliged to proclaim. The Church is instilled with the prophetic task of both criticism and construction, internally and externally in the process of change.[lxxx] It must be willing to “shake off the ambiguous protection provided by the beneficiaries of the unjust order.”[lxxxi] Whether in protest by means of a powerful witness to an alternative community (Acts 2) or direct participation in the creation of a more just society – it will depend on the church and its particular circumscription – the church has a duty as the body of Christ to participate in the transformational of both individuals and culture.  In both cases, it is required that the Church maintains solidarity with those who suffer from misery and deprivation,[lxxxii] and this solidarity means that we make ours their problems and their struggles.”[lxxxiii] Roger Haight defends the need for the church’s inculturation for precisely an end such as this; and inculturation for Haight does not connote assimilation, which precludes reducing ecclesiology to the sociopolitical realm.[lxxxiv] The enterprise of inculturation involves and names the church’s second operation as a sacrament, or visible sign of an invisible reality (Augustine).

This call to be poor is extended most expressly to church leaders, which means at times they will be expected to demonstrate the same manner of subversive, peaceful action against systemic violence that Jesus epitomized.  More recently one need only look to compelling martyrdom account of God’s servant Bishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador.  Unfair wages and exploitation, for instance, make up a sinful situation that offends God.  If the Church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, like the bodies of believers (the Kingdom of God is within you!), the practical significance of clergy lifestyle cannot be emphasized enough.  A proper testimony to the contemporary world demands a restructuring of the financial dependency of clergy on the people they serve. Gustavo Gutierrez advises those who do not wish live on stipends or from teaching religion should be willing to experiment with healthy, secular jobs.[lxxxv] This is just one tangible route by which the Church can fulfill its third assignment, which is to be a medium for transformation.

For this reason, despite its consistency with New Testament apocalyptic literature, an ecclesiology that rests wholly on eschatology with an “ontological priority of the future” is not satisfactory for the third world.[lxxxvi] What this crucial qualifier discloses is that even a very balanced, dialectical theology of both/and or already/not yet tensions is contextual, and insufficient as a universal system.  As Haight affirms, there is no one New Testament model for church polity.[lxxxvii] This is not to say, however, that just any system can stand.  Even Gustavo Gutierrez himself does not reduce eschatology and salvation purely the socio-political sphere; nor does he renounce the necessity of separation between Church and state.  Different faith communities will inevitably and predictably be persuaded at times to stress one of the three roles of Christ (prophet, priest and king) over and against the others depending on context.  As such, a system protecting against the extremes may still be the best system, insofar as systems remain useful.

This is why Haight emphasizes in his ecclesiology the tension between unity and plurality, ideals and actualities; between community and institution, charism and office, progressive and conservative forces, continuity and change, and even history and eschatology as in Moltmann.[lxxxviii] Therefore, an Anabaptist Congregationalist church in North America can sustain partial communion with a socially liberal Catholic church in Argentina.  Different churches can administer the sacraments in different styles and still keep fellowship with one another.  “One baptism” can consist of various forms of Baptism.

However, considering what liberation theology has taught us, hierarchy poses a latent threat and impediment to liberation for Silvia – the importance of ecumenism notwithstanding, it is defensible that grassroots and democratic movements have historically been more effective than top-down, institutionalized enforcement of policy for social change.  Thus it may be that a criterion even for partial communion should be implemented entailing the expectation of more equitable governance in churches than has been traditional typified in many denominations.  Furthermore, such equitable standards today would not only need to transcend clergy and laity lines, but obviously break down divisions between gender, sexual, and racial barriers as well to establish a genuine priesthood of all believers.[lxxxix] Church leaders can have authority without hierarchical power, which parallels the Congar’s account of the Church as “no longer defined in terms of its priesthood, consisting of priests carrying out their task with lay people as their ‘clients’.  Instead it is seen as community that is being built up by the brotherly contributions made by all its members.”[xc]

There is a weakness with this recommendation though, for who would be in charge of enforcing church guidelines beyond local boundaries without some kind of hierarchical structure?  It is true: “the local church is not a freestanding, self-sufficient reality.”[xci] There are no easy solutions here, and like Moltmann’s eschatology, Haight’s approach may be the best that has come forward – the balance between community and institution in particular, and living out of the theological and ecclesiological tensions themselves in general.  In Haight’s ecclesial vision, cooperation replaces competition.  As Schleiermacher insists, diversity does not imply division.[xcii] Further, ecclesial existence for Haight is equated with communitarian existence.  In an important albeit restricted sense, community is the mission.[xciii] There are other foundational elements, or features and practices that comprise ecclesial existence, like gathering for worship and prayer and the hearing of the Word.[xciv] And in order to preserve its holiness, which is another key trait, the Church must constantly be renewed by the Spirit.  This happens through repentance and confession.

Again, a principle charge for today’s church will be that made by Congar: “A sound and critical rejection of any form of ecclesiolatry should find its place within an immense, deep and warm love of the Church, and experience has shown that such a love is very favourable to a life of prayer and praise.”[xcv] In one sense contextual, and in another sense, universal, by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the service of Christ the King, the Church assumes the role as both Silvia’s advocate for healing and justice and the administrator of forgiveness and grace for guilty sinners in the world.

[i] Wolfhart Pannenberg and Duane A. Priebe, What Is Man? Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective. (Fortress Press, 1970), 8.

[ii] David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 420.

[iii] Ibid., 422.

[iv] Pannenberg and Priebe, What Is Man?, 36.

[v] Ibid., 13.

[vi] Ibid., 14.

[vii] Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Fortress Press, 2004), 44.

[viii] Ibid., 45.

[ix] Martin Heidegger and Joan Stambaugh, Sein und Zeit (SUNY Press, 1996), 245.

[x] See Thomas A. Carlson, The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human (University Of Chicago Press, 2008).  Here Carlson defends a reading of Heidegger that is unlike the way other postmodern thinkers have interpreted Dasein, like the French phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion who accuses Heidegger of the “highest kind of idolatry” and anthropomorphism with respect to being-in-the-world in the existentialist sense.

[xi] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 51.

[xii] Ibid., 105.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986), 108.

[xvi] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 108.

[xvii] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Human Nature, Election, and History, 1st ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 16.

[xviii] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Volume II, Human Destiny (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), 47.

[xix] Ibid., 48.

[xx] Ibid., 51.

[xxi] Rudolf Karl Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament; (Scribner, 1967), 7.

[xxii] Ibid., 9.

[xxiii] Ibid., 20.

[xxiv] Ibid., 21.

[xxv] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 116.

[xxvi] Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 1st ed. (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1995), 99.

[xxvii] Timothy Harvie, “Living the future: the kingdom of God in the theologies of Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 10, no. 2 (April 1, 2008): 152.

[xxviii] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 27.

[xxix] Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology in The coming of God.,” in God will be all in all (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), 245.

[xxx] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 10.

[xxxi] Bauckham, “Eschatology in The coming of God.,” 157.

[xxxii] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God (Westminster John Knox Pr, 1969), 68.

[xxxiii] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, 1st ed. (HarperOne, 1996), 62.  Hays describes Eph 1:22-23 as a mystical meditation on cosmic ecclesiology, which seems consistent with both Pannenberg and Moltmann.

[xxxiv] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (IVP Academic, 2009), 59.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 60.

[xxxvii] Terrence W. Tilley, The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology As Reconciling Practice (Orbis Books, 2008), 45.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 64.

[xxxix] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 109.

[xl] Hans Kung, Justification (Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964), 33.

[xli] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (IVP Academic, 2009), 79.

[xlii] Ibid., 117.

[xliii] Roger D. Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3: Ecclesial Existence (Continuum, 2008), 194.

[xliv] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis Books, 1991).

[xlv] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 130.

[xlvi] Ibid., 120.

[xlvii] Mark S. Heim, The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 271.

[xlviii] Jurgen Moltmann, History and the Triune God: Contributions to Trinitarian Theology (Crossroad Pub Co, 1992), xi.

[xlix] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and culture, 1st ed. (Harper, 1951), 191.

[l] Ian A. McFarland, The Divine Image: Envisioning The Invisible God (Fortress Press, 2005), 33.

[li] Ibid., 44.

[lii] Kevin Hart, Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion, 1st ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 225.

[liii] Tilley, The Disciples’ Jesus, 59.

[liv] Ibid., 70.

[lv] Yves Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit (Herder & Herder, 1997), 46.

[lvi] Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, Amercian Edition. (Macmillan Company, 1956), 42.

[lvii] Ibid., 46.

[lviii] With this comment I mean to create a kind of threefold interweaving of what Kasper, Tanner, and Pannenberg proposed in common as that which the Christian life offers, combining main ideas from their three respective works: The God of Jesus Christ, Christ the Key, and What is Man?

[lix] Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, 85.

[lx] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982), 135.

[lxi] Ibid., 135.

[lxii] Ibid., 135.

[lxiii] Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key, Current issues in theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 147.

[lxiv] Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, 122.

[lxv] Ibid., 33.

[lxvi] Ibid., 220.

[lxvii] Ibid., 46.

[lxviii] Ibid., 107.

[lxix] Ibid., 127.

[lxx] Ibid., 81.

[lxxi] Ibid., 73.

[lxxii] Ibid., 222.

[lxxiii] Ibid., 102.

[lxxiv] Ibid., 114.

[lxxv] Ibid., 209.

[lxxvi] Ibid., 223.

[lxxvii] Ibid., 224.

[lxxviii] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesialogy Of Liberation (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), 272.

[lxxix] Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3, 36.

[lxxx] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Revised. (Orbis Books, 1988), 69.

[lxxxi] Ibid., 58.

[lxxxii] Ibid., 61.

[lxxxiii] Ibid., 68.

[lxxxiv] Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3, 237.

[lxxxv] Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 71.

[lxxxvi] See José Miguez Bonino, “Reading Jürgen Moltmann from Latin America.,” Asbury Theological Journal 55, no. 1 (March 1, 2000): 105-114.

[lxxxvii] Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3, 55.

[lxxxviii] Ibid., 47.

[lxxxix] Ibid., 120.

[xc] Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, 208.

[xci] Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3, 22.

[xcii] Ibid., 6.

[xciii] Ibid., 107.

[xciv] Ibid., 60.

[xcv] Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, 210.

Works Cited

Aulen, Gustaf. Christus Victor. Amercian Edition. Macmillan Company, 1956.

Bauckham, Richard. “Eschatology in The coming of God..” In God will be all in all, 1-34. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999.

Bonino, José Miguez. “Reading Jürgen Moltmann from Latin America..” Asbury Theological Journal 55, no. 1 (March 1, 2000): 105-114.

Bosch, David Jacobus. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Orbis Books, 1991.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Theology of the New Testament;. Scribner, 1967.

Carlson, Thomas A. The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human. University Of Chicago Press, 2008.

Congar, Yves. I Believe In The Holy Spirit. Herder & Herder, 1997.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler. Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesialogy Of Liberation. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Revised. Orbis Books, 1988.

Haight, Roger D. Christian Community in History, Volume 3: Ecclesial Existence. Continuum, 2008.

———. Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion. 1st ed. University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Harvie, Timothy. “Living the future: the kingdom of God in the theologies of Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 10, no. 2 (April 1, 2008): 149-164.

Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. 1st ed. HarperOne, 1996.

Heidegger, Martin, and Joan Stambaugh. Sein und Zeit. SUNY Press, 1996.

Heim, Mark S. The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.

Kasper, Walter. The God of Jesus Christ. Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986.

Kelsey, David. Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Kung, Hans. Justification. Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964.

McFarland, Ian A. The Divine Image: Envisioning The Invisible God. Fortres Press, 2005.

Moltmann, Jurgen. History and the Triune God: Contributions to Trinitarian Theology. Crossroad Pub Co, 1992.

———. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology. Fortress Press, 2004.

———. The Way of Jesus Christ. 1st ed. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1995.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and culture. 1st ed. Harper, 1951.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Nature and Destiny of Man Volume II, Human Destiny. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Human Nature, Election, and History. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977.

———. Theology and the Kingdom of God. Westminster John Knox Pr, 1969.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart, and Duane A. Priebe. What Is Man? Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective. Fortress Press, 1970.

———. Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982.

———. Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982.

Tanner, Kathryn. Christ the Key. Current issues in theology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Tilley, Terrence W. The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology As Reconciling Practice. Orbis Books, 2008.

Torrance, Thomas F. Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ. IVP Academic, 2009.

Wright, N. T. Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. IVP Academic, 2009.

Four Varieties of Atheism


“The god-less thinking which must abandon the god of philosophy, god as causa sui, is thus perhaps closer to the divine God. Here this means only: god-less thinking is more open to Him than onto-theo-logic would like to admit.” – Martin Heidegger


In the first place, and probably most common to mainstream Western culture, atheism can result from the standpoint of an apparent “negligible yield of evidence”[i] for God (already here we have already assumed a certain kind of God, and this issue will be taken up below). That is, one decides the classical and/or contemporary arguments for God’s existence to be less than convincing.  For now, it might be fitting to term this particular brand of atheism as “narrow,” but not “narrow” in a derogatory sense – quite the opposite, in fact, atheists would say.  Rather, it implies the disbelief in a specific variety of theism (the Christian, omniscient, omnipotent sort). Examples of classical theistic arguments include the ontological (of which there are many versions, but the most famous is likely that of St. Anselm), cosmological (specifically championed by Thomas Aquinas or in the form of the Kalam argument of the medieval Islamic philosophers embraced recently by the evangelical Christian William Lane Craig), teological (maintains the substantiation for intelligent design or agency behind the universe), and the mystical experience arguments.  Though he interacts with and claims to refute each argument in fair detail, it is sufficient for our purposes to summarize that Richard M. Gale is one atheist who contests these classical theories by amply underscoring a number of their weaknesses, gaps, and even potentially fundamental shortcomings.

Modern atheists are often reacting to theistic philosophers like Richard Swinburne for example who argues from an evidential position for the existence of God, and this typically entails accepting that the burden of proof be placed on the one who would argue for belief in God rather than the reverse.  A counterexample, however, from the theistic perspective, would be someone like Alvin Plantiga who rejects the epistemology of classical foundationalism and contends instead that faith in God need not be bolstered by arguments or empirical verification in order to be deemed reasonable.  In response to the postulations of the above-mentioned theologians, atheist Keith Parsons carefully examines and refutes in defensible fashion the case made by both thinkers.  Giving full credit to their brilliant minds, Parson nonetheless is respectfully “forced to conclude”[ii] that the best support theistic belief has found is unwarranted.  It is as if Parson echoes a complaint made by Richard Dawkins about the Christian theologian Alister McGrath: All theists seem to furnish is “the undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence of God.”[iii] Even if this argument is granted (which for Dawkins it hardly is), it falls well short of inducing faith.

There are of course other legitimate grounds for atheism besides from the foundation of supposedly failed, classical theistic theories.  Some are satisfied with disbelief immediately following the theodicy problem set out by Epicurus.  Additional alternatives might involve atheism deduced from conclusions in the natural sciences (evolution, anthropology) leading to worldviews like physicalism/materialism or naturalism.  Interestingly enough though, some forms of naturalism can remain open to new information that would at least hypothetically permit a kind of gradually acquired supernaturalism; but such rare situations would tend to eventually be conformed to or incorporated into a quasi-enlarged natural landscape.  So while something like a mystical experience might provide prima facia grounds for belief, it would not be rational grounds.[iv] Sociologically speaking, Emil Durkheim typifies well what could be called one expression of naturalism.  Hence, Evan Fales cites Durkheim so as to reason that the “supernatural” can be super insofar as it is a product of “human artifice, not nature.”[v]

Challenging the view that morality requires a religious foundation, David Brink successfully (I think) shows that “voluntarism is subjectivism at the highest level,”[vi] and thus undermines the autonomy of ethics (ironically, Kierkegaard’s comprehension of faith in Christianity might concede to this).[vii] Brink then presents a list of natural, secular, or commonsense morality models like utilitarianism, the aggregate conception of impartiality, and reciprocity or the mutual advantage theory.

The chief shortcoming in my view with any theistic argument tends to be not so much in the method or starting point, however copious the presumptions therein might be, but rather in what tends to be asserted as conceivably attainable by the arguments themselves.  In other words, more headway might be made if less audacious projects were undertaken in what one sets out to prove or demonstrate.  The plausibility of assigning omniscience and omni-benevolence to the Christian God, for instance, is highly disputed even from within the faith tradition itself.


An important question to consider with regard to atheism and world religions is whether or not atheism is necessarily an antireligious position.  Michael Martin investigates the matter in an illuminating way.  In order to begin talking about this subject, one must first roughly define the concept of religion.  Whereas traditionally in the West is has been assumed that religion presupposes supernatural beings, a moral code, and distinction between the sacred and the profane, Martin is quick to point out that already this point of view, in this case espoused by William Alston, presumes too much.[viii] Indeed, such parameters as those laid out by Alston do typically constitute the nature of religions like Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism or Islam, but there are a number of exceptions to this paradigm, especially in the East.

In his very helpful little book on Buddhism, Damien Keown seems to agree with Martin and insists in a similar manor on the notion that “the categories of ‘theistic’ and ‘atheistic’ are not really appropriate here.”[ix] Keown continues by asking if it could be that “the idea of a creator-God, while a central feature of one religion – or family of religions – is not the defining characteristic of all religions.”[x] So with Buddhism then, while differing from say Christianity in part because it denies the existence of a supreme, transcendent being, some Buddhists do believe in spirits or gods, which would distinguish Buddhism significantly from an other kinds of atheistic or non-theistic worldviews like Marxism.

Thus, it becomes essential to redefine what characterizes religion altogether.  Relying on the work of Monroe and Elizabeth Beardsley, Martin suggests, in place of the old framework put forth above, that religions in general seek to answer one of five major questions in life: (1) What are human being and the “chief problems they face,” (2) “What are the characteristics of non-human reality that are of greatest significance for human life,” (3) Given these things, how should human live, (4) “Given the answers to the first three questions, what practices will best develop and sustain in humanity an understanding” of these things, and (5) “what method should be used” in seeking answers to all of these questions?[xi] Ninian Smart has argued for something similar in his book The World’s Religions, only he describes seven different dimensions of religion, but the outcome corresponds closely with what is outlined by Martin.[xii]

Martin explains how this new structure expands the horizon of religion to include a much wider range of religious traditions comprised of Eastern faiths like Jainism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, but it would also contain Taoism, Shintoism and various Hindu traditions that are not explicitly discussed in his article.  Therefore, some of these religions referred to above are indeed atheistic in the “narrow” sense, but this does not make them utterly atheistic.  It follows then that atheism, while probably renouncing most theological content within the various world religions, does not require the refusal of certain moral or aesthetic qualities and components within these great traditions.  In sum, what Martin means to illustrate is that “atheism and religion do not necessarily stand in [total] opposition to one another.”[xiii]


Thomas Altizer, in perhaps the most original form ever constructed from without of the Christian tradition, authors and calls for an atheism that is genuinely unlike any other. Drawing heavily upon Paul, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, and Barth, all of whom are shockingly and paradoxically allied with Altizer somehow, it is finally Nietzsche, Blake and Hegel who open the way for Altizer’s imaginative and inimitable scheme.

In Altizer’s consideration, God became a universal Godhead by the sacrifice that made God human and absolutely emptied.[xiv] Indeed, this was God’s self-annihilation and death invoking the age of the immanence of the absolute Spirit in history (Hegel).  And yet, Christianity nonetheless was born and lived on for centuries proclaiming that which for Nietzsche is the real nihilism[xv] – the founding of a religion based on the absolutely eternal, static, and changeless, heavenly realm, and such an affirmation of the endless “robbed life of its fragile, fleeting beauty.”[xvi] For Altizer, Nietzsche is also the most profound thinker of the weight of the forgiveness of sin because he purely explores our deepest darkness.[xvii] Therefore, Altizer’s Jesus is experienced in eternal recurrence, continually enacting a total forgiveness.

Altizer blames Constantine for introducing the hypostatic union into the Church at the Nicene Council and thereby empowering a hierarchical and imperial institution.[xviii] This Christianity does not speak to the modern world, and all otherworldly, Platonic notions of religion must be rejected.  Altizer’s gospel is an apocalyptic, dialectical theology of how in the present age we might live toward a totally new humanity without praising the ascended or kingly Jesus.  Affirming the enthroned Christ is in fact what causes Jesus to be most deeply forgotten.[xix] In place of the unprecedented turn to the past that exemplifies today’s fundamentalist theology, Altizer solicits an absolute future that is the reversal of all things past – a “negation of the negation,” like the prophetic period of Israel after the Babylonian destruction of Judah.[xx]


Not to his discredit, Bonhoeffer incorrectly predicted that the “world come of age” had no apparent need for God, which led to his account of “Religionless Christianity.”[xxi] Many others later extended this forecast with him.  Mark C. Taylor on the other hand exclaims boldly that, “you cannot understand the world today if you do not understand religion.”[xxii] He thereafter goes on to declare that religion and secularity are not enemies and alternatively proposes that secularity itself is a religious phenomenon.  Consequently, the two are always misinterpreting one another.  Furthermore, Taylor makes the controversial statement that the modern, supposedly secular world can locate its origin in Protestantism, or more particularly, in Luther – a Luther who gave birth to privatization, deregulation, decentering, and the reign of the human subject.

Just as atheists before him have expanded, or even blurred the boundary lines that encompass or divide theism and atheism, the key to Taylor’s analysis is a drastic augmentation of what delimits religion on the whole.  In this regard he follows Paul Tillich’s definition of faith or religion to some degree, as merely that which is the focus of our “ultimate concern.”[xxiii] This permits him to proclaim for instance that the counterculture of the sixties was a very religious movement and that so-called secularism is rooted in the same kind of dogma, resulting from the constant oscillation or “altaration” between structure and emergence, order and ambiguity, and location and dislocation.[xxiv]

Taylor is not alone in taking this course.  In his book On Religion, John Caputo does not “confine religion to something confessional or sectarian, like being a Muslim or a Hindu, a Catholic or Protestant.”[xxv] Going even further, for Taylor this means that religion in all its common appearances as an “emergent, complex, adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals” not only serves to add meaning and significance to life, but it also functions to destabilize and disturb structures.[xxvi] Correspondingly, Taylor collapses the sacred into the secular and visa versa, and he endeavors to do this descriptively rather than prescriptively.  Whether or not he succeeds is maybe debatable.  To make the claim though, he needs only to draw attention to history, especially that of politics, culture, and religion in the United States for the last two centuries wherein the vacillation between immanence and transcendence has perpetuated (e.g., the liberal theology after Ritschl and Schleiermacher or the American religious right).

Taylor notices how people increasingly gravitate toward firm foundations promising security and certainty in a world gone mad.  From his perspective, however, uncertainty and instability foster the territory from which creative emergence can arise “at the edge of chaos in a surprising moment of creative disruption that can be endlessly productive.”[xxvii] Thus Taylor advocates risking a faith that embraces the unknown by re-appropriating (and yet moving beyond) the absolutely paradoxical faith of Luther, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and finally Barth before him – though each in their own unique and restructured way.  He departs from Altizer’s last modern grasp for a structure of pure immanence, as it too, not unlike Barth’s absolute transcendence, remains totalized and therefore excessively stable, however radical.  Taylor accuses Altizer of serving up yet another “metaphysics of presence.”[xxviii]

Taylor subverts the oppositional logic of religiosity, which is differentiated from religion, such that neither the either/or dualism of neo-orthodoxy in Barth nor the both/and immanent monism of Altizer (Nietzsche and a version of Hegel) are sufficient to comprehend the complexities of emerging network culture.  Any faith as absolute or foundational is unsuitable, and only a new, ever-unfinished, creative “schemata” will do.  In short, modern atheists don’t go far enough.  Belief is not managed but adapted.  Better, it is adaptive, and in this manor discovers mystery but never possesses it.  One must come to “the end of the end to be ‘right,’” to be certain she holds the whole truth.[xxix] That’s why Caputo can decree the age of “incredulity toward grand narratives” (Lyotard) to be “not a particularly friendly environment” for any metaphysical, fixed, or decisive affirmations or rejections of God.[xxx] Such a worldview allows someone like Derrida to state that he can’t ever really know if he’s an atheist or not.[xxxi] But something about Taylor’s a/theology is nevertheless incongruent with deconstruction.  He recognizes well the common criticism of deconstruction as a framework that tends to paralyze us in the face of the world’s problems.  So in its place, rather than the undeconstructable ideal of justice, Taylor posits a cooperative, vitalizing environmental ethic for a tenuous, volatile world.[xxxii]

Because, however, the great religions tend to name their God or gods in particular ways and trust authorized revelation in some measure thereof, it remains to be seen how one could integrate these traditions into the postmodern matrix without doing them serious harm.  I wonder uncertainly, for example, how much residue of absolutism from modernity might be sneaking in the backdoor as it were of the postmodern critique with respect to the rules governing truth claims.  It is at least safe to conclude that a thread of separation lies between hope and despair After God, solidifying Wittgenstein’s analogy that “an honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker.”[xxxiii] If what Taylor describes is really an a/theology, it must also be ir/religious, un/known, and a/theistic.  Even the God-denier cannot avoid hermeneutics concerning the God she denies.

[i] Michael Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 103.

[ii] Ibid., 117.

[iii] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 54.

[iv] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 129.

[v] Ibid., 132.

[vi] Ibid., 154.

[vii] See Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (CreateSpace, 2010).

[viii] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 13.

[ix] Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, USA, 2000).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 219.

[xii] Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[xiii] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 230.

[xiv] Thomas J. J. Altizer, The New Gospel of Christian Atheism (The Davies Group, Publishers, 2002), 51.

[xv] Ibid., 31.

[xvi] Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief (Paraclete Press (MA), 2008), 97.

[xvii] Altizer, The New Gospel of Christian Atheism, 120.

[xviii] Ibid., 80.

[xix] Ibid., 44.

[xx] Steven G. Smith, “The new gospel of Christian atheism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73, no. 3 (S  2005 2005): 892.

[xxi] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Updated. (Touchstone, 1997).

[xxii] Mark C. Taylor, After God (University of Chicago Press, 2007), xiii.

[xxiii] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, No Edition Stated. (C. Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 63.

[xxiv] Mark C. Taylor, “Refiguring religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77, no. 1 (March 1, 2009): 110.

[xxv] John Caputo, On Religion (Routledge, 2001), 9.

[xxvi] Mark C. Taylor, After God, 1st ed. (University Of Chicago Press, 2007), 12.

[xxvii] Taylor, After God, xviii.

[xxviii] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 277.

[xxix] Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy (Baker Academic, 2008), 193.

[xxx] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 267.

[xxxi] Ibid., 274.

[xxxii] Ibid., 376.

[xxxiii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, New edition. (University Of Chicago Press, 1984), 73.

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