William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Tag: Jon Sobrino

My Dissertation Abstract: Globalization, Violence and Salvation

Dissertation Prospectus


“To be against globalization as such is like being against electricity.  However, this cannot lead us to resign ourselves to the present order of things because globalization as it is now being carried out exacerbates the unjust inequalities among different sectors of humanity and the social, economic, political and cultural exclusion of a good portion of the world’s population.” – Gustavo Gutierrez

Understood within an analytical framework and mediating theory of economic, political and cultural globalization, the purpose of this dissertation is to critically, socially and theologically reflect upon the violence and injustice that has been enacted and endured by people in Mexico and the United States in recent years (2008 to present) as a result of the so-called drug war.  To begin I will attempt to outline the various dimensions of the phenomenon of globalization and the drug war more specifically, the latter of which is presumed to epitomize major negative aspects of the former.  This part of the examination will rely on the work of several leading social scientists who have extensively studied the U.S. – Mexico underground political economy and its genealogy. Secondly, an ethical-political critique from a view of Christian salvation will be conducted as it pertains to this particular conflict, principally but not exclusively in its social sense.  My method and hermeneutical approach will be guided by what has been called the transmodern thought of Enrique Dussel and Hans Urs von Balthasar, respectively – Dussel with regard to historical and ethical-political concerns, and von Balthasar with attention to his theological aesthetics and the dramatic structure of his doctrine of salvation as symbolized by the theological significance he gives to Holy Saturday.

Dussel’s re-reading of the history of modernity as “coloniality” from a Latin American “border thinking” perspective, as well as his Levinasian and arguably Schellingian-Marxist interpretation of social relations will be the primary lens through which I will try to situate and appreciate the more particular problem of globalization and the drug war itself.  Subsequently, in an effort to sensitize Dussel’s approach to a view from “the eyes of faith,” it is von Balthasar’s meditation on the beauty of the Christ-form that will be appropriated in order to convey a less anthropocentric and more trans-temporal, thoroughgoing Christian theo-political imagination. The study will culminate in an attempt to synthesize several key contributions of Dussel and von Balthasar by drawing on additional soteriological and ecclesial insights from Dorothee Soelle, Jon Sobrino and Gustavo Gutierrez. It will be argued finally that only a properly historical-critical (Dussel), aesthetic and christocentric (von Balthasar) liberationist soteriology (Sobrino) of communion (Gutierrez) can confer the adequate theological and ethical vision of neighborliness – one that is necessary for the inspiration of faithful Christian and ecclesial resistance (Soelle) in this crisis and others.

A Holistic Gospel: Seeing our Sinful Selves in the Despised Other

The Meal at the House of Simon the Pharisee

The Meal at the House of Simon the Pharisee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For some reason I think I have often tended to assume that God’s preferential option for the oppressed on the one hand and the call for our own personal repentance on the other are very different and separate aspects of the Christian faith (individual vs. social salvation, etc.).  And indeed, in the history of American Christianity in the last century, conservative and liberal churches have usually swung to one side or the other, respectively.  What I find in the quote below, and as those like Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino have taught me before, however, is that these two dimensions of faith and spirituality are intimately linked.

A sermon in church yesterday also reminded me of this, as the story from Luke 7 of the sinful woman with the alabaster jar of perfume who anoints Jesus was expounded.  Simon the Pharisee is unable to see that he and the woman ultimately stand on the same ground.

Why does the Bible, and why does Jesus, tell us to care for the poor and the outsider? It is because we all need to stand in that position for our own conversion. We each need to stand under the mercy of God, the forgiveness of God, and the grace of God—to understand the very nature of reality. When we are too smug and content, then grace and mercy have no meaning—and God has no meaning. Forgiveness is not even desired. When we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, religion is always corrupted because it doesn’t understand the mystery of how divine life is transferred, how people change, and how life flows. It has been said by others that religion is largely filled with people who are afraid of hell, and spirituality is for people who have gone through hell.

Jesus is always on the side of the crucified ones. He is not loyal to one religion, or this or that group, or the “worthy” ones—Jesus is loyal to suffering itself, wherever it is. He is just as loyal to the suffering of Iraqis or Afghanis as he is to the suffering of Americans. He is just as loyal to an oppressed gay man as he is to an oppressed married woman. We do not like that! He grabs all of our self-created boundaries away from us, and suddenly all we have is a free fall into the arms of God, who is our only and solid security. This seems to be God’s very surprising agenda, if I am to believe the Bible.

— adapted from A Lever and a Place to Stand: The Contemplative Stance, The Active Prayer by Richard Rohr

Tony Jones, A Better Atonement, and the Future of Emergent Church Theology

Over the past five years or so there seems to have been a climax and subsequent decline in optimism and enthusiasm surrounding the Emergent Church conversation.  Of course those on the conservative evangelical side have always dismissed the movement as heterodox and a return to theological liberalism, but even some of the more sympathetic critics that often describe themselves as “missional” have expressed concern about a lack of theological leadership.  There’s been no shortage of deconstruction and even ecclesial innovation amid this group, but the common question remains: what is it exactly that so-called emergents believe?

One way to answer this question has been to point to someone like Peter Rollins, for example, who argues very persuasively that we have to get beyond belief.  I think many would concede this, myself included, and the adage of “belong, behave, believe” (as opposed to the traditionally reversed order) has since been well-received.  Nonetheless, I think we’ve also learned that it’s helpful and maybe even essential to know what beliefs we’re trying to get beyond in the first place.  Even Brian McLaren, whose significance and example for me and many others I’m sure can hardly be over-stated, has been decidedly hesitant to spend much time putting forth specific formulations of systematic theology.  Indeed, the trend, and rightly so, has been to uphold narrative before proposition, and transformation before information.  But my contention is that the signifance of what we believe is no less urgent now than ever before – especially when it comes to being organized as a movement (just look at the successes and failures of OWS!) – even if the issue of how we believe continues to take center stage, as I agree it should.

I’d like to think that I’m a pretty strong believer in the centrality of Christian praxis; BUT, emphasizing orthopraxis to the detriment of orthodoxy – at least to the extent that ecclesiological unity is concerned – may be running out of steam.  Are the two not mutually interdependent?  This is why I’ve been especially appreciative of figures like Rachel Held Evans, David Fitch and Roger Olson, for instance (check out Olson’s most recent posts in response to a TGC publication on “the gospel”).  In his own more scientifically sensitive way, Philip Clayton has similarly pioneered a way forward for those of us who are not quite ready to be done with the creeds.  Then there’s the oft-cited work of N.T. Wright of course.  Many others could be mentioned, and it is good to remember the limited cultural and ethnic context of this little North American middle-class discussion.  Nonetheless, I think we disaffected, homeless, progressive but not quite post-Christian folks in this region of the world might still have an important role to play in the global future of our faith.

With this in mind, the voice I’m recognizing here is that of Tony Jones and his very short new book, A Better Atonement. I wouldn’t say that Jones is trying to be particularly original with this work.  And if you’re looking for the next cutting edge theory or criticism of Christian atonement, this is not it.  If that’s what you want, check out Kathryn Tanner, Delores Williams, Mark Heim, Andrew Sung Park, etc.  No, Tony’s book is far simpler and more useful than that.

No doubt I’m probably in danger of painting with too broad of strokes here, but…

As has frequently been noted, a major problem in many evangelical contexts continues to be the degree to which “the gospel” is equated with the penal substitutionary theory of atonement (PSA).  I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the future of the emergent church depends on its ability to articulately refute, and concisely recast, this reductive tendency among our more conservative friends.  No matter what kind of social justice projects (KONY 2012, etc.)  get tacked onto this message, and regardless of how much Relevant Magazine emphasizes “rejecting apathy,” so long as PSA is depicted as the full picture or main event of the good news, the church will fall well short of expressing Jesus’ vision for it.  (By the way, I’m talking to people who still care about preserving something like the Christian church that isn’t just Mainline version 2.0… if this isn’t you, that’s fine!).   An adequate response, however, will take more than just ignoring or only deconstructing Bebbington’s evangelical quadrilateral (conversionism, Biblicism, crucicentrism and evangelism).

Because even if you’re convinced PSA is the devil, the language is in the Bible even when re-interpreted, so it’s probably not going away.  Tony Jones knows this, and he also knows better than to dismiss it.  Instead, as others have tried to do (e.g., Scot McKnight), he’s merely attempting to dethrone it, and I would like to join him.  Unless “emergent” is to become forever irrelevant even to the most open-minded evangelicals, this is the path that should be taken.  I’m very appreciative of the various feminist criticisms of traditional atonement readings, but if you want to engage the other side of the debate, you can’t just throw out PSA.  It has to be dealt with even if you revise it.  If this is too conservative for you, sorry! 🙂  At the same time, Tony is also careful to point out that, generally speaking, atonement theory (not christology) has never really been a dividing debate in church history and shouldn’t be now.  Compared to the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, atonement is secondary.  I’m not as sure about this, but he could be right.  I’m simply saying that, just as mainliners might need to meet emergents halfway, so too can emergents be generous enough to “go to the middle” for evangelicals so to speak.

I feel like there’s been a heavy slew of blog posts and books lately on why young adults are leaving the church (see Frank Schaeffer, Christian Piatt, Dianna Butler Bass, etc.)  This is a good conversation to have, and I think the practical issues definitely need to be addressed.  We should talk about aesthetics, music, liturgy, values, programs, etc.  But the two biggest factors, I would want to say, are still identity and purpose, and surely we get these from our theology, and perhaps more precisely, our christology.  Without this, the church might as well become an arts interest group or a social service club.

  1. The first thing Jones does is to (convincingly, in my view, and biblically!) debunk original sin without neglecting the seriousness of sin as such.  Again, this is not new, but sin must be understood structurally and socially (war, violence, oppression, inequality, environmental degradation, etc) without forgetting about it individually.  This is crucial for an emergent church theological project.
  2. Secondly, Jones directly challenges Driscoll and Piper on this issue for their hyper and irresponsible, Calvinist PSA.  I am so glad he’s not ignoring them.  They are way too powerful and influential to ignore if we care about the North American church.  And here’s what we have to see: a lot of people who go to their churches aren’t even like them because they don’t know better!  The response: offer an alternative that isn’t reactionary.
  3. Thirdly, after outlining the major theories of atonement throughout history and testifying to both their necessity and finitude, Jones turns to a better theory for our time, despite its shared limitation (see below).

Anyone who has studied 20th century theology already knows what Jones is saying here.  Jon Sobrino and the liberation theologians said it.  Jurgen Moltmann and other political theologians have said it.  Scholars like Theodore Jennings, Miroslav Volf, and Joel Green have made cases along the same lines.  People who like the Girardian “Last Scapegoat” take will obviously appreciate Mark Heim or someone like Ingolf Dalferth.  And this is one of the positions that Jones defends.  More emphatically though, Jones follow’s Moltmann’s notion of atonement as solidarity through the Philippians 2 hymn and The Crucified God.  Now to be fair, the best proponents of penal substitution (e.g., von Balthasar) can also say this, but think substitution without the penal, or what Volf calls inclusive substitution, in which Christ is not a third party inserted between God and humanity, but the very God who was wronged:

“Jesus’s life, and particularly his death, show God’s ultimate solidarity with the marginalized and the poor,” Jones explains, “with those who most acutely experience godforsakenness . . . in his death, we are united with his suffering.  And in identifying with his resurrection, we are raised to new life.”

My interpretation of A Better Atonement goes something like this: The real hole in our gospel for conservatives is the failure to proclaim the saving significance that Jesus and therefore God participates fully in and understands human suffering, while for liberals it is that Jesus does this as Christ.  This means three things: we affirm incarnation, we affirm resurrection, and we declare the prophetic meaning of the crucifixion loud and clear.  Yes, we’ve read and written about this, and it might even be old news for some, but surprisingly enough, most people sitting in the pew as it were still haven’t really heard it preached or seen it in action, either because we’re too distracted as ministers with preaching salvation as a legal transaction on the one hand or using it as mere exemplary inspiration on the other.  The justice of God gets sidelined in both cases, as the parables about the Kingdom of God are either overly eschatologized or mystically internalized.  The cross and the kingdom must be reconnected, and it can’t just be social.  It has to be soteriological.  This is what Jones is saying.  This is what we have to claim (for a better Scriptural understanding of what this looks like, I recommend N.T. Wright’s most recent book, How God Became King).

The book reads like a blog – very informal, but still clear and free from overly simplistic caricatures, which is a difficult balance to find.  This is reliable, timely, and bold theological leadership for the emergent church that is desperately needed.  I must confess that I wish it had come sooner, as I feel too many people have already moved away from the conversation before listening to what might be a tenable alternative to the monolithic PSA gospel of conservative evangelicalism.    Nonetheless, this should be a welcomed and appreciated little book for easy reference and for prompting discussion in an intelligent and accessible fashion.  What could be more appropriate as we approach Easter?  In sum, Jones lays out what in my view is the most compelling theory of atonement for our situation in light of the overwhelming crises we face as a North American church in the midst of what Walter Brueggemann has perceptively called a culture of therapeutic, technological consumer militarism.

A shorter and slightly different version of this post can be found at homebrewedchristianity.com.

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