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The Speech and Practice of Christianity, Part II

E-mail Correspondence with Catherine Keller (April 1, 2009)

Cullen-Meyer: I recently finished your book Face of the Deep and appreciated it greatly. I was wondering if you might elucidate for me your approach to ecclesiology and theodicy. As for the first, even though the book is of a different topic, I had trouble mustering a reason to go to church. The church in my experience is rarely politically provocative or creative but conservative and patriarchal. Do you believe the church holds the possibility to begin again in a tehomic plethora of possibilities and transgress dominant discourses as well as Western social orders? Secondly, I sense that a theology of becoming is pregnant with an alternative response to suffering and evil that goes beyond the common responses given by standard philosophy of religion courses that explain evil away and make us indifferent to material suffering. For one, process theology ostensibly does not fix a binary oppositionalism between Creator and created. The point being,  individual agency is therefore not in competition with God. Furthermore, suffering caused by nature and suffering caused by civilization do not seem to be as isolated as typically viewed. Our world can also not be said to be the best of all possible worlds within a tehomic framework it seems to me. From my perspective a theology of becoming at the very least does not get God or ourselves off the hook in wrestling with particular horrendous evils. That is about as far as I get. I would love your help in wrestling with some of these questions or point me in a good direction. Since this is the only book of yours I have read, and granting that I may have missed things in Face of the Deep, forgive me if my questions have already been answered by you here or elsewhere.

Keller: Thank you for such an intelligent response. And of course a searching one—as the churches are pretty much as you say. But I find many exceptional congregations (often Episcopalian or UCC, occasionally even my denom of UMC), and they are real centers of community and activism. As to the questions of suffering, evil and what is called theodicy—I draw deeply from process theology. On this matter  (and a bit on the church) I think you will find my more readable recent book On the Mystery quite germane. And the references in it to process theologians  (Cobb, Griffin, their joint book; also Griffin’s God, Power, and Evil, technical but thorough; both drawing on AN Whitehead) may also be key.
Blessings of the Deep in your search!

Cullen-Meyer: Thank you for the help. I will definitely check out the references you mentioned. I had not yet read your chapter on Job when I sent the email but finished it today. That was helpful in itself. Would you say a good ‘pastoral’ response to particular sufferings would be to ‘change the subject’ due to the limits of answering theodicy theologically? In other words, would a good response be to expose our theologies of control in favor of a doxological respect for creation? As you put it, the answer to Job’s question still seems to be blowin’ in the wind.

Keller: A doxological respect, amen! Inasmuch as it inspires action on behalf of the earth and its vulnearble critters!
I do think On Mystery will be friendly for you.


Evils and the Limits of Theology

theodicyIn perhaps the best theological piece on theodicy I have ever encountered Karen Kilby shows that “Christian theology ought neither construct theodicies, nor ignore the kinds of problems theodicies try to address” in ‘Evils and the Limits of Theology’. Theodicy, the problem of evil and suffering, deals with the quandary of how/why evil exists if God is loving and all-powerful. It happens to be a leading argument against theism, even if a relatively new one (a product of the Enlightenment when God-talk became abstracted and separable from tradition). Her basic thesis, even though not a “particularly gratifying one”, is to recognize theological questions regarding evil and suffering as legitimate ones but also recognize that we have no legitimate answers. Her reasoning behind this is due to the influence of Theology and the Problem of Evil and The Evils of Theodicy written by Kenneth Surin and Terrence Tilley respectively. Their argument is that by constructing theodicies we are essentially explaining evil away (reconciling ourselves to it) rather than deal with particular evils in their fullness. By shifting our gaze to the abstract theoretical level we are ignoring particular kinds of evils – explaining it makes it not so bad – especially if we think God permits it for the greater good (best of all possible worlds argument). The “moral dimension” to this is that we become complacent and apathetic towards particular sufferings and evil.

Kilby goes on to elucidate the uncomfortable argument of Marilyn McCord Adams in her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God who states that there are some evils that are so horrendous that they cannot conceivably be for a greater good of the individual or the globe; such as the suffering and death of children, genocide, rape, disfigurement, mutilation, torture, betrayal, incest, cannibalism, and the use of nuclear weapons on innocent populations. (We might also add that those who go through the “furnace of discipleship” don’t always come out with improved characters. Soul-making goes both ways). Even justifying evil by citing that at least the creator is suffering along with us is unhelpful for those who are actually suffering. It is just another theory attempting to get God off the hook and “diminish the scandal of evil”. Provocatively put by Kilby,

If I mistreat my children, then the fact that I mistreat myself as well does nothing to make it acceptable

As Christians we believe God will ultimately redeem evil and that good can come out of it, but this does not work as an explanation – primarily because it doesn’t always work that way. As shown, the mystery of God and the mystery of evil reveals how limiting and pathetic our explanations are. Why there are ‘answers’ out there, they end up doing more harm than help.

The meaningless suffering of Christ and Job

HT007715In order to set-up Job’s meaningless suffering, according to Žižek, we must understand Christ’s. Put otherwise, Job’s suffering is as meaningless as Christ’s death. There is no possible utilitarian calculation that succeeded. For Rene Girard, perhaps Christ’s sacrifice accomplishes nothing other than putting an end to the rotary cycle of revenge and punishment (i.e., sacrifice). Christianity is transgressive to the social order then because it breaks from scapegoat mechanisms (the desire to sacrifice an innocent victim for the purpose of social cohesion). God simply refuses violence.

For Žižek Christ’s dereliction on the cross “repeats God’s own self-abandonment required of creation” whereby God withdrew himself in order to create the world. The founding act of contraction. What comes ‘out of’ this primal chaos remains insecure and unorganized at times. For Žižek, repeating Schelling, “the passage from chaos to creation anticipates Lacan’s account of the passage from the real to the symbolic, i.e., the process of becoming a subject.” To put otherwise, the symbolic order only emerges out of the abyss (of the abyss). Madness, therefore, is part of the divine mind, part of the given order, and part of being human. But confronting life in its arbitrariness and meaninglessness, the suspension of the symbolic, is “the most horrible thing to encounter.” And its not an encounter that can last long. But in the encounter we have are given the freedom to act outside of given patterns. We can change it.

Coming full circle I repeat that “Christ traumatizes the symbolic networks of supports”; primarily the existing norm of retributive justice. But the act of the cross was still senseless. There was no guarantee on the other side. Christ’s break/suspension for the ethical/symbolic code of his society implies “a moment of utter abandonment.” But as covered above, ideology merely covers and obfuscates the real. Likewise, making sense of suffering is just another fantasy to distance ourselves from suffering. The lesson we gain from Christ and Job’s suffering “is that there is no secret and hence no answer” to “why existence is marked by suffering.”

Job’s assertion that suffering is meaningless corresponds to Christ’s because Christ’s suffering was also meaningless; meaningless in the sense that it cannot be sensibly reduced to a sacrifice in an economy of exchange

Job's comi-cosmic epiphany

ckellerIn one of the more creative approaches to theodicy I have recently viewed appears in Catherine Keller’s chapter “Recesses of the Deep” in her book Face of the Deep. A key tool to her reading of Job seems to involve the literary genre of comedy (specifically found in folk culture) delineated by Bakhtin; strategies including parody, irony and satire. In this light Job is the ‘fool’ who defies God by employing humor, specifically mockery while putting God ‘on trial’. Job challenges creation. He calls upon chaos to defeat order. God answers by giving Job what he asks for, the chaos of life. Rather than give Job a direct answer, “God changes the subject” through demonstrations of chaotic whirlwinds. In a twist of tragedy, the joke is on Job.

But what is YHWH’s point? “You are ignorant and mortal, human, so shut up”? Or rather: “Be still and see all this!”? To me they should like the fulminations of an artist whose morals have been questioned while her creations get ignored

In other words, it’s not a show of omnipotent bully power to put Job in his right place (how it has been favorably interpreted by imperialists). Rather, God is asking Job to take a second look at all of creation and move beyond his theological anthropomorophism that ignores nonhuman nature. In fact, Job is inundated with reference to animals that have typically been ignored and erased by theologians attending to the text of Job. To this Keller asks, “Might our indifference [to animals] reflect the cultivated distaste for the chaos of creation?” Perhaps, Keller suggests, the presence of animals in the text of Job are there to resist human dominance and control of creation. This does not set well on the conscious of those who have come to understand the task of God’s human creatures to ‘subdue’ the earth. But Keller points back to that passage in Genesis and takes us one verse further in order to disclose what it is that we have dominion over: frankly, ‘vegetarian domination’. In other words, “we are given what the rest of the animals get.”

Like Moby Dick Leviathan makes a mockery of the whaling industry… But in this deft parody of the ancient work trade and business class, the windy vortex mocks teh powers of global commericalization; it puts in question the assumption of the exploitability of the wild life of the world – the “subdue and have dominion” project. The chaos monster does not seek vengeance but respect for its domain

While Keller admits that the answer to Job’s question “is still bowin’ in the wind” she nonetheless directs us to the interconnectivity and value of all creation. Our human status implies a responsibility in caring for the earth, not abusing it. Perhaps Keller’s most insightful point from Job is,

It is not up to God to right our moral wrongs, to fix our injustices and correct our oppressions. That doesn’t happen. To depend on God to intervene, to justify “himself,” to operate as the just patriarch is to abdicate our own moral responsibility on earth