William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian

Category: Theology (Page 1 of 6)

What We’re Missing When We Call Jesus “Teacher” or “Rescuer”

[This is a re-post from Missio Alliance.]

Recently I noticed a little twitter interaction between Tim Keller and Rachel Held Evans. Keller tweeted the following:

To which Evans replied:

Keller replied back:

Evans went on to make a number of other responses, when others chimed in, like:

Fully recognizing, of course, that banter on twitter hardly counts as real dialogue or theological discussion, this exchange is nonetheless revealing. Now, it could be dismissed as just a typical debate between two different streams of Christian thought, one evangelical and the other mainline Protestant. And some might want to criticize the way Evans responded to Keller’s tweet, like she was picking a fight (the snarkiness of “I’m one of those crazy people…”).

Still, I think her last tweet above actually gets at something very important. Evans’ point is not a liberal one. Nor is their disagreement necessarily about atonement theory—say, between penal substitution and moral influence. And I do not think Keller and others like him are dismissing Jesus’s teachings or the significance of following him, either.

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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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Good Friday

Reflection on John 19

John tells us that this is all happening on Passover, the annual celebration of Israel’s liberation from slavery, God’s victory over Pharaoh through the Exodus, which was always potentially a politically sensitive time. It isn’t hard to connect a few dots in your mind between Egypt and Rome, in other, if you were in Pontius Pilates place, you never knew when some Galilean hothead would stir up riots against the hated Empire. (Barabbas in Luke’s account as an example of this!)The religious leaders knew this and were taking advantage of it in how they were bargaining with Pilate.

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Imagining the Beauty and Drama of Christ from History’s Underside: Toward an Ecclesial Postmodern Political Theology

If postmodern theology is to awaken the political imagination of Christian churches and energize them in a subversive and liberating way, then I submit that it must do at least two things: First, it must speak with a depth of theological conviction and fidelity to the Christian tradition in a way that at the same time transcends both modern and pre-modern epistemological strongholds.

And secondly, postmodern theology must recast the church’s mission in a manner that is, while not defined by this, still significantly informed by of a political-economic ethic from the standpoint of the experience of those on the underside of history — which is to say, those who do not benefit from the dominant center of society but rather find themselves on the periphery, in many respects. In particular, when I say underside, I mean those victimized to some degree by euro-american, “colonial-capitalist” history (whether it be on the basis of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or what have you).

So, there two challenges for the church — one postmodern/epistemological, the other postcolonial/political-material. And my way of thinking about these two fronts of that the church is facing, is helped by drawing on the work of two major figures: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Enrique Dussel.

Balthasar’s theology, for those who may not know, begins with a theology of beauty — and really it’s an epistemology – an approach to truth and faith from an aesthetic starting point, rather than a propositional or moral one. And then, only after having started with beauty, does he move into what he calls theo-dramatics. Because he’s saying that what is truly beautiful is the key for knowing, inspiring and approximating God’s goodness in the world, shaped by the Christian story: “God’s drama” of salvation history. This also has implications for ecclesiology, which I will touch on briefly below.

The second thinker I’m relying on is Enrique Dussel. Dussel is a contemporary of Latin American liberation theologians (LTs) like Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino, but he has really distinguished himself as a philosopher more so than a theologian by seriously and critically engaging modern European and American philosophers of the 20th Century. Specifically he appropriates Emmanuel Levinas but in a more socio-political rather than phenomenological vein, using some of Levinas’s same categories, like exteriority and alterity, to talk about how the most privileged political and ethical perspective is always that of the victim and outsider — the excluded one.

But even more than that, Dussel retells the history of modernity itself, which for him is essentially coterminous with colonialism, in terms of having its origin and defining material moment in the Spanish conquest and invasion of the Americas – in the events of the subjugation, brutality and exploitation of the indigenous people there and what that has continued to mean for Latin American history ever since even well into the 20th and 21st Century. This is how he conceives of history itself from the experience of its “underside,” what he also terms the “subaltern.” Modern Western civilization was built on this imperial “discovery” and the slave-based economy that ensued. The consequences are still being experienced, especially by the governments of Central America in the past 50 years.

But Balthasar is the figure who I believe can guide us — not all the way, but for a while — beyond the modern/post-modern impasse, while also being faithful to the Christian tradition (even though he of course has his blind-spots too). Here’s what I mean: if modernity was guilty of logocentrism, condescension, normalization and universalization by way of trying to smooth out differences, then postmodernity has been prone to paralyze constructive politics in the name of heterogeneity and multiculturalism/pluralism (Rosa Maria Rodriguez Magda). Alan Badiou has voiced a comparable critique of postmodernity by describing it as “communitarian particularism” that “reduces the question of truth (and hence, of thought) to a linguistic form, judgment . . . [that] ends up in a cultural and historical relativism” (Badiou, 2003). And I think von Bathasar’s theology, again, because of both his aesthetic epistemology, on the one hand, and his christocentrism, on the other, avoids the cliff on either side.

In addition, I’m trying to map an ecclesial political theology, which means it will take its departure from the social location of the Christian faith community, rather than principally from the standpoint of state citizenship. For the latter is yet another way that political theology has too often been captured by modernity.

At the same time, these two places or identities – that of the church and the state – cannot be separated. I’m not calling for a neo-anabaptist politic. But Balthasar argues that, in his public ministry, Jesus illustrates how there can be an opening up a horizon beyond the immediacy of the state, indirectly limiting the state by subjecting it to an eschatological critique. Which is by no means an abandonment of the material, but it does signal toward something beyond the material that is always manifesting and incarnating itself in the material. So there remains the indication of a liberation the originates in God, not humanity.

Here’s what this politics boils down to though for Balthasar. In Theodrama vol. 2 he states that:

“Politics concerns [the Christian]: as a “member” of the body of Christ in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers [and sisters] and must realize the inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live…”

So political power comes in the weakness of that solidarity that the church has with the most vulnerable.

Like Jesus, though, there is a refusal to concede to the “rivalries of history,” for Balthasar. The church cannot grab power or seek to influence it from the top down. And there’s a lot about this that I think we should hold on to. So Balthasar gives us parameters for a Christian ecclesiology, but there is much wanting here in terms of the promise of and cry for liberation from oppression! There’s not enough urgency in Balthasar. So for a political and economic ethic, I turn to Dussel.

It’s worth noting that while he’s not a pacifist, Dussel considers any power taken by the state, rather than power given by the people in their consent, to be illegitimate. Because this would be self-referential power and therefore fetishism.

Dussel accuses both the neoliberal US and the Latin American Left of historically presupposing the necessity of violence against their political opponent – and instead contends that politics is about the continuation of life whose aim is the very preservation of the opponent — through the means of deliberation and delegation, and so on. So Dussel’s is a biopolitics – of the preservation, enhancement and continuation of the life of the political community but also of its very condition for material reproduction: the planet, culture and indigenous traditions!

  1. So the first of three ethical principles that Dussel follows is a material one, expressed as the obligation to produce life. Its concern is with human bodies and their well-being. This is the source of value for the political community, not production or consumption.
  2. The second principle, then, is more formal and procedural, as that of discourse ethics (it’s the goal of consensus around moral validity). Bearing in mind the first principle then, discourse here is always carried out with the voice of the underside, and of victims setting the terms of dialogue.
  3. Third, there is the criterion of feasibility (feasibility of mediations), the question of what can actually and practically be achieved in any given political situation.

These three criteria – material, dialogical and feasible – are co-constitutive of what Dussel judges can finally be called “good.”

Finally, though, I turn back to Balthasar. In his mind, Beauty (aesthetics) is the starting point, and may in fact have the most potent recourse to inciting the Good.

And obviously, for Balthasar, the archetype of beauty is the life-form, and the whole drama of Jesus, the Christ figure, whose beauty is most fully revealed in relief from the ugliness of humanity’s violence that puts people on crosses. So beauty is made known above all in God’s willingness to go to that human, bodily and historical-material, political place of suffering and rejection.

So to summarize all of this: because of the kind of beauty that is revealed for Christians in Jesus (this is Balthasar), there is an ecclesiological call to solidarity, with those who Jesus has solidarity with in his suffering. What Dussel then demonstrates, moreover, is that this solidarity must start with those on the margins.  And Dussel’s three principles for political-economic ethics stress that this solidarity is not just a willingness to suffer with, but to suffer for. It is a willingness to resist with and to protest with – not just with but for people, to achieve better conditions for the flourishing of their lives.

As I consider what this theology amounts to if practiced, I imagine that it might reflect several aspects of what political theologian Mark Lewis Taylor calls critical movements of resistance.

Taylor discusses critical movements of resistance as responses to various sufferings and injustices that are being experienced by those on history’s underside as a result of the colonial-capitalist state, in theo-poetic fashion, which is not reducible to the level of political economy (so aesthetics!), but is just as much interested in affecting culture and stirring artistic expression of creative story-telling, dramatic and performative acts of resistance to catalyze a social movement.

So an appropriate Critical Movement of Resistance (CMR) will take broader and deeper forms than mere advocacy for change in public policy, though it certainly includes this. And it will be constituted by at least three visible markings, Taylor says: an 1) owning of agonistic being — solidarity in suffering, sharing in the weight of the world. Second, 2) cultivating of artful reflex, a kind of mirroring or mimicking of the state. Perhaps most powerfully illustrated just biblically in Jesus’ triumphal entry on a donkey, genuine street theater! and thirdly, the 3) fomenting of adversarial political and counter-colonial/decolonial practices, which would need to actually name opponents, call them out, expose them, make evil show itself! Not destroying the opponent, but calling them to repentance! And then attempt to take higher moral ground in an unpredictable and offsetting stealing of the show, beating stakeholders to the stage. It is disruptive and demonstrative, in other words.

This obviously takes strategic planning, vulnerable networking, risk-taking, and in a way that has to be careful not to devolve into sheer aestheticism, and that at least aiming to bring about sustainable, and life-renewing communal activities.

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More Atonement Talk: Some Clarification and Application

This post originally appeared on The Missio Alliance Blog on June 19, 2015.

According to its founding documents, Missio Alliance is committed to two things regarding the doctrinal issue of the atonement: 

[First, asking] what is God’s salvation in Christ in the world and how might we understand it in a way that honors substitutionary atonement yet places it within the whole context of God’s work to set the world right? [And second,] working out what this means for conversion and sanctification of the individual believer as well as his/her participation in the Mission of God in the whole world.”

It is in this spirit that I wrote my post “Payment or Forgiveness?: Putting the Gospel back into the Atonement.” Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t done to the satisfaction of some. In this post, I’m going to try to make a few clarifications concerning the push-back I have received, and then go on to consider the second task mentioned above, which is to say something about what this doctrine means on the ground for individuals and churches participating in God’s mission.

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Payment or Forgiveness? Putting the Gospel Back into the Atonement

This post originally appeared on The Missio Alliance Blog on June 8, 2015.

By now it has become fairly common for many evangelicals to have expanded their understanding of the gospel to include the good news about the Kingdom of God, and about a new way of life that is made available in the Spirit because of Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection. This should be celebrated! And the message still needs to be proclaimed throughout our culture and the whole earth, for that matter, but it is really great that there has been some headway made on this front in many churches, thanks to scholars like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and many others before and after them.

At the same time, a problem remains within these same evangelical circles concerning the way we think about the gospel. The “Kingdom-of-God critique” does succeed at making the gospel bigger and more contextualized. It reveals that the good news is for all of creation, and not just human beings, and it situates the story of Jesus within the larger history of Israel as its climax and completion. This is very good, but we still need more.

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Seeing Truth after Modernity in the Gospel of John

[This post appeared first on the Missio Alliance blog here.]

This last month I started teaching a class at our church called “Jesus in John.” In surprising ways, I’m finding that the season of Easter and the celebration of the resurrection is especially brought to life by the fourth Gospel. Immersing myself in a study of John again has alerted me to how much I’ve sometimes let the biases of modern scholarship creep into my thinking about Jesus’ teachings and self-understanding. In spite of all the light that historical criticism may shed on what we can confidently say about the biographical details of Jesus’ life, I’m reminded of the extent to which a focus on merely measurable truth can seriously limit our imagination and capacity for perceiving truly human and transcendent truth.

In the passion narrative of John’s Gospel, Pilate infamously asks, “What is truth?” I say he “asks,” but it is hard to know if Pilate is really asking anything. Does Jesus simply refuse to respond, or is John taking us into Pilate’s inner monologue? Pilate is conflicted. He has no measurable reason for believing the claim that Jesus has been given authority that is greater than the Emperor’s. In the end, for Pilate, the truth of power wins out against the weak truth of his own blurry vision of Jesus, who for John is truth made visible, because he reveals the Father (1:18).

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Exodus, Exile and Resurrection: Living Beyond Tribalism and Individualism

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance Blog.]

The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.

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Naturalism is not Enough: Or, Why Transcendence is not the Problem

[This blog post originally appeared at HomebrewedChristianity.com, and was written in response to the podcast linked below. LeRon Shults graciously responded on his website, and we continued to dialogue in the comments section there.]

There has been a great discussion in the comment section of the latest TNT episode where Tripp talks with LeRon Shults and Barry Taylor, both of whom I admire. Shults defends a form of radical theology and at one point even uses the term “atheist” to describe himself. His ontology is a strictly “naturalistic” one. It reminds me of Kester Brewin’s recent criticism of Rob Bell’s benevolent conception of the universe. Several people commenting in response to the conversation have asked why process philosophy or theology isn’t more attractive to Shults, or why it doesn’t pass the science test. This is a great question and a discussion worth having, but I want to make another observation.

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More from E. Frank Tupper's "A Scandalous Providence"

Previously I shared this collection of quotes from Tupper as well.  The quotes below were part of my reading in preparation for the sermon I preached on Sept. 28th, the text and audio from which can be found two posts before this one.  In particular, I’m always encouraged when a preacher or theologian takes the time to underscore either 1) the hope that comes from God’s solidarity with suffering through Jesus or 2) the mystery of the incarnation itself. In this case, Tupper talks about both.  Most evangelical preaching either ignores these doctrines or takes them for granted, respectively.  This is simply unacceptable, but especially so at a time when Christianity is making less and less sense, and offering less and less good news, to more and more people in North American society. Here is Tupper:

The vision of the salvation of God grasped Jesus with unprecedented boldness and stunning clarity rooted in his sense of the Holy in the midst of the tragic suffering of his people: On the one side, he encountered the incredible, immeasurable history of the suffering of humanity through illness and natural disaster, violence and injustice, military occupation and brutal subjugation, dehumanizing exploitation and excruciating oppression. On the other side, Jesus had from his dawning consciousness a distinctive personal relationship to God, the Abba presence he had lived and breathed all his life, the Holy One in the history of Israel who stands against evil and promises to overcome all the murderous forces of evil (p. 78).

The revelation of God in Jesus Christ does not undercut but intensifies the mystery of God. The incarnation constitutes a mystery beyond “human understanding,” because the Infinite, the numinous, can choose to become a finite human person: That the Infinite can become a finite, frail, human creature radically transcends but comprehends the human category of “person,” definitive of the human being. Thus the mystery of the kenosis of God in creation and Incarnation demonstrates that the Holy is at least “personal” — a crucial analogy neither comprehensive nor exhaustive (from a footnote on p. 79 about Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy).

Death through violence is the companion of oppression (p. 125).

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