May 12, 2016 / Theology
In this essay, John B. White explores how (not) to exercise.
The theologian Graham Ward is known to blur the disciplinary boundaries that separate theology from political theory, aesthetics, sociology, and anthropology. In this interview, the celebrated author of Cities of God again looks through that interdisciplinary prism to consider evil. Ward contrasts the way evil is used in public rhetoric with the way Christians have traditionally understood evil, affirms the scandalous nature of the theological enterprise, and discusses how the role of the artist and theologian relate to one another. He also highlights the way a theological anthropology can offer fresh insight into the political realm, calling on the church to live toward the future to come.
The Other Journal (TOJ): When a modern nation-state decides something is “evil,” it tends to target it and devote resources to eliminating it. In the United States, we not only have a war on drugs and a war on terror but also a war on cancer and a war on Alzheimer’s disease. Recently, the governor of California called for a war on unemployment. What does this cultural practice of trying to destroy and target evil reveal about how we think of the problem of evil?
Graham Ward (GW): I think there is an important discussion to be had about the use of that kind of public rhetoric. Once we name something as evil, once we say, “This is an instantiation of evil,” we have classified that person or force in a very negative moral category; we have given that concern a mythical dimension.
This is one of the effects of President George W. Bush identifying Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the “axis of evil”: that statement transformed the reality of human politics into something transcendental, epic, and mythical—the struggle between good and evil.1 In naming those countries in that way, Bush brought all sorts of subconscious connotations as well as conscious connotations to bear. For example, the term axis of evil triggers neoconservative Christian associations with battles with Satan—it raises questions of truth and righteousness and the kingdom—and this created a religious paradigm for a situation that was both of human making and about what humans do with respect to each other. Terrorism is a human situation. It has a human history. We know from the various historians about the ways in which America backed some of these Muslim movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood for example. As part of the Cold War fight against communism, the United States armed those movements in the sixties and seventies, so this issue is of human making. And for Bush to use that rhetoric starts to elide responsibility, because by claiming something is evil in that neoconservative sense, by suggesting that something is attached to a satanic or transcendent force, one excuses human responsibility. I think it’s a neat way of sidestepping the problem, which has more to do with how human beings act toward each other.
TOJ: If evil is not an external, transcendent force, how might the practices of prayer and confession help us clean the blemishes from our own hearts and deliver us from evil?
GW: Let’s talk about evil in a Christian context. After all, it’s part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Deliver us from evil.” Most liturgies begin with an act of contrition, an act of confession. There is a sense in which confession actually aligns us with the will of God, which is the will of the good. And in that sense, confession turns us away from all those things that have a tendency toward what is evil.
From a classical theological context—and here I’m going back to Aquinas and Augustine—there is no substantive thing called evil. Evil doesn’t have any ontological weight at all. God gives existence to all things and all things in the existence that God has given are good. And so evil is not any thing at all. But when we turn away from that which sustains us and maintains us in our being, we are moving toward that which is the negation of what we were created for. And so what we see as turning toward evil is a turning toward nonexistence, toward that which is denigrating to our creaturely status as creations of God, who is Good. Within that context, then, prayer is a confession of reorientation toward that which is good. It is a confession that we have been involved in acts that are counter to the honoring and worship of God and a recognition that we are created beings who are dependent on God. And so prayer is a reorientation toward the Good. And that’s what we mean in the Christian tradition when we speak of sanctification. Our reorientation toward God brings about a change, a transformation, a metanoia, that in fact turns us away from the disobedient misuse of those goods God has given us. It’s not that there is a substance called “evil.” When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil,” we’re not asking God to deliver us from some substantial, evil thing that is out there, because that would make us dualists rather than monotheists, that would suggest a divine good fighting a divine bad. There’s no good fighting the bad in the Christian tradition because the bad just doesn’t exist in that way. There is only God’s goodness, and God’s goodness will win out in the end.
TOJ: That reminds me of that striking passage at the end of Cities of God where you articulate your experience of feeling accused as you pass by the body of a homeless man on the streets of Manchester. You describe feeling as though some part of yourself were dying when you walked past, and this forces theology to speak. But it seems like you’re making two contradictory claims: first, “the theologian prophesies, amplifying the voice of the accuser,” and second, “alone I have no answers to give my accuser, and because of his or her own silence, his or her own degradation, I can pass by.”2 Doesn’t this leave theology with the impossible task of amplifying a silent voice?
GW: That’s the most amazing thing about theology! It’s a totally scandalous discipline! None of us have ever seen God. None of us have ever heard God speak in any kind of literal way. Theology is an impossible discourse. One of the things Aquinas points out in the opening of the Summa is that theology has no language; it has to borrow languages from all the other sciences. Even the language that is drawn from Scripture is actually a human language. We’ve had to describe the things that are going on with respect to God in human idioms that are tied to certain cultural and historical formats. Thus, theology always has a difficult task, and I have always tried to point out how complicated and difficult that task is. I wanted to end Cities of God on that exact conundrum.
The conundrum is that theology both gives permission to speak, if you like, and has nothing to say. Theology is not there to solve problems, such as the problem of homelessness. It is there to bear witness to the fact that such problems are injustice and that, in the light of Christian theology, injustice cannot remain. And yet at the end of the day, theology can’t really say anything. Theology can’t solve the homelessness problem. You’ve got Christians working with homeless people and you’ve got Christian organizations working with homeless organizations, and they are pursuing practical measures to rectify and change things. But in fact what I was trying to get at with that anecdote was not related to the particular homeless man as a singularity but to homelessness itself. How many times do we have to step over these people before we actually say something is wrong? And that doesn’t mean, “Theology has got the answers! Please listen to us!” That to me would be the mistake of saying, “Theology is the Queen of the sciences. It’s got all of the answers!” Theology doesn’t have all the answers. But it has to actually speak up and say, this is wrong, and then all disciplines must make every attempt to try to find the answers.
TOJ: Saul Williams once said in an interview, “I believe my connection to God is wireless. I believe the connection to the church is analog.”3 He’s one of a growing number of hip-hop artists who draw heavily on religious themes but keep a critical distance from institutionalized religion. What do you make of this trend? And how is the church supposed to respond to artists who feel licensed to make statements about the nature of God and God’s will without asking permission or approval from church authorities?
GW: Oh, I think that’s fantastic! The idea that the grace of God only operates within the church is nonsense. The grace of God operates within the church and without the church. Augustine was one of the first people to talk about the way in which even people in the church do not know whether they’re in the kingdom or not. There is a visible church, and there is also what Augustine calls a pilgrim church, a church that is the true church, a church that is not self-evident, not self-manifest, and not necessarily visible. So to whom should Saul Williams ask permission? I’m excited by the way in which theological discourse goes on a walkabout. It’s not just church talk. It finds ways of speaking, of coming to the fore in hip-hop artists, in filmmakers, in novelists, in poets. That’s absolutely great! Theology and the church have no monopoly on the nature of God’s grace, the operation and movements of God within the world, or on saying where God is in the world.
TOJ: In that case, what’s the relationship between the role of the artist and the role of the theologian?
GW: That question suggests that the role of artist and theologian are separate, and I’m not sure about that. I think every theologian is an artist to the extent that every theologian has to be creating out of their imagination, and the work that they’re doing should be both critical and creative. I began my own career wanting to be a novelist and a short story writer, and my interest in theology evolved out of that. And I still see the task of doing theology as creative and imaginative. I’ve actually told PhD students that they should be reading more, and not just theology. They’ve got to develop and cultivate the creative use of language and to exercise their imaginations. That’s extremely important. I realize there are professional theologians just as there are professional artists, but with respect to the theological, I would say that both are trying to bear testimony to what they believe the situation to be. The boldest, most courageous art is that art which tries to find a way of really expressing the genuine. What is the true concern? What is really going on today? So when we look back at writers like Franz Kafka and painters like Gustav Klimt, for example, we see that they were bringing expression to some of the tensions about their cultural and historical context, and I think it is the nature of witnessing and the nature of prophesy that it is trying to bring public attention to the times within which we’re living. Art and theology show us the urgent things we need to discuss.
TOJ: In a memorable sentence from The Politics of Discipleship, you claim that the global city contains “a new class of somnambulist, surfeited by shopping and anesthetized with entertainment, cultivating their own lifestyles, and profoundly forgetful of civic responsibilities and the proliferating needs of the disadvantaged.”4 You suggest that the church needs to actively challenge this new class’s attempt to build a glorious city for itself through the sacrifice of human life. Can you offer some examples of the church successfully living into this vocation?
GW: Yes, I’ll give you an example from the United Kingdom that happens to include both Christian and Muslim communities. When the International Olympics Committee members were taking bids for places to host the 2012 games, some of the members were interested in urban regeneration and using the sports, leisure activities, and cultural events of the Olympics as a stimulus for re-urbanization. A number of very prescient leaders in the London community who were mainly Christians and Muslims, though some secularists were involved as well, offered to help the Olympic committee in London who were making the bid. These community leaders volunteered to gather details to show how deprived and depressed the area was and to make a case for the many great things that could be done by bringing the Olympics to that part of London. In exchange, these leaders bartered to have local people take part in the actual planning of the event, including any plans related to urban regeneration. When the bid was successful, community members took up those places at the planning meetings and they made it absolutely plain that what they wanted from their negotiations was to ensure that one-third of the housing built for the London Olympic Village would be returned to the community for social housing and that all the people who worked on the Olympic Village, at every level, must be paid a livable London wage. They even required the monitoring of employers in that area to ensure that no one was paid below a livable wage. They also lobbied the Olympic Committee to set guidelines requiring that a particular percentage of the jobs that would be created for the 2012 Olympics would be created for the people in that area and that if the people in that area lacked the required skills to hold those jobs, the necessary training would be provided.
That’s just one of the examples I’ve come across recently where you see religious leaders and church people coming together across religious boundaries and saying, “We want a common good in this area. We know what the common good would be for this area because we live in this area, and we talk to these people, and we are part of the community.” That is tremendous. These are the kinds of examples that wake me up and think, “Thank goodness that someone’s actually doing some of this work.” Also, another person who is writing in a similar vein is Luke Bretherton, who is moving from King’s College London to Duke University this summer. My approach is abstract and academic, whereas Luke is much more involved at the grassroots level, trying to find solutions for cheaper, more affordable housing.
TOJ: I look forward to having him in Durham! Now, taking a more global look at things, can theology give us a deeper understanding of the political turmoil we currently see all over the world, from Moscow to Kano?
GW: I’m not sure whether theology has the tools for that kind of political analysis, but I can point to a certain theological anthropology. At the heart of theological anthropology is a spectrum: at one end of the spectrum is amor dei, love for God, and at the other end of the spectrum is amor sui, love for oneself. As we move toward the amor sui, we also move toward what Augustine calls the libido dominandi, or the desire to dominate. In other words, we will do anything to make sure we come out on top.
So what theology can do is point to a certain understanding of what it means to be human. Please do not be naive, theology would say, about what it is to be human. Some of the most incisive theological statements since 1990 have been attacking liberal humanism for its enlightenment views, and, if not attacking human rights in and of themselves, these statements have pointed to their inadequacy and to the inadequacy of believing that there is a moral or even a neutral understanding of being human that we can shape in any way or form. The theological anthropology that we find within all the monotheistic religions is that human beings are morally very, very fragile, and the more we move toward ourselves, the more we get caught up in the libido dominandi. Thus, theology can remind us to not underestimate the duplicity that is within human beings. It can also point to ways that duplicity can be transformed, by turning to God, and to the consequences of that duplicity and the consequences of rampant amor sui. And I think there’s no more evident and manifest consequences of that rampant amor sui than capitalist greed.
TOJ: On that note, do you have anything that you’d like to say to the people involved in the Occupy movements worldwide?
GW: I’m not sure how things are going worldwide, but in Great Britain, where the Occupy movement first landed on the church’s doorstep, I don’t think the church knew what to do—they just panicked. But I think sound Christian reasoning won out in the end, and if the movement is evicted from that site now, it will be because the London magistrates have ordered it. And over Christmas, the Bishop of London actually went down and met with people.
One of the things I mentioned in either Cities of God or The Politics of Discipleship was that in any walk of life, Christians cannot agree to ghettoization. So theology shows us that we have to make these links. We’ve got to start these conversations. And I was very glad about how things were resolved at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
TOJ: To speak in extremely broad generalizations, some intellectuals point to increased life expectancy and decreased infant mortality and use that as evidence to suggest that life today is better than it’s ever been. Other intellectuals point to the breakdown of community and increased alienation and suggest that we’ve declined from a more blessed past. How does your work challenge these two broad narratives?
GW: My work challenges that last narrative directly, because I do not believe that we are in a period of lapse; there was no golden period of community that we’ve lost. In theology, this would be seen as thinking that Aquinas and Christendom were the highlights and that we’ve been on a constant decline since then with the rise of nominalism, or the rise of capitalism, or the rise secularism, et cetera. I don’t believe in that kind of narrative.
Ultimately, I’m not sure that we are better or worse. We simply have a different set of questions to ask. And I don’t see the work I’m trying to do as an attempt to get us back to anywhere. I think the prophetic vision of the Christian church is a future-focused vision. It’s not a utopian vision but it has utopian aspects to it. As Christians, what we’re announcing is the future to come and that that’s what we should be living toward. And this means that we can’t keep stepping over people in the streets, because this cannot happen in the future that we want—so what are we going to do about it now?
1. See Bush, “Text of President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address,” Washington Post, January 29, 2002.
2. Ward, Cities of God (London, UK: Routledge, 2000), 259.
3. Williams, interview by José Eduardo Fialho Gouveia, Bairro Alto, Rádio e Televisão de Portugal, http://youtu.be/Gl5IXKcSQFM.
4. Ward, The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens, The Church and Postmodern Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 220.
Graham Ward is currently Professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics at the University of Manchester and will become Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University in the fall of 2012. Ward has authored and edited more than a dozen books and has contributed articles to many more. He is also an editor of the Radical Orthodoxy, Christian Theology in Context, and Illumination: Religion & Theory series.
Jacob Levin is currently the resident scholar at Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He spends his days out in the fields and his nights studying religion, politics, and aesthetics. Levin’s current project involves placing Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon in conversation with KRS One’s The Gospel of Hip Hop.