Between Old Athens and New Jerusalem—and Outside of Both

Justice outside the city. This title is meant to evoke several things, including irony, for it was outside the city of Jerusalem that the Gospels says Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. For Christians—and we count ourselves among them—it was outside the city that we murdered God, in the ultimate act of injustice. We also read the witness of the Christian scriptures as promising that Jesus, who is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (see Revelation 13:8), and who still has the mark of the nails in his hands (see John 20:27), is still in solidarity with those who are banished from the human city. So the messiah, whose reign is promised to make justice and peace kiss, is outside the city until New Jerusalem comes down from heaven. It is from this perspective “outside the city” that we hope to embark on theological journeys—maybe not as those who have been banished from the city by the powers, but as those who are curious as to why God would choose this site to inaugurate the Kingdom of God.

But “outside the city” also means for us a chance to converse with philosophy.  I (Thomas) came up with the title while discussing a portion of Gillian Rose’s book The Broken Middle entitled “New Jerusalem Old Athens: The Holy Middle.” Here she analyzes two “post-modern” thinks, Mark C. Taylor the a/theologian and John Milbank the theologian and critiques them both for evading law—in Milbank’s case for advocating a peace beyond legality, and Taylor for celebrating the Dionysian “joy that ‘breaks the power of law’” (page 281). Rose claims that these two are post-modern political theologies, for they both present solutions to the political problem: “for Taylor, economies of domination will crumble; for Milbank, salvation must mean ‘liberation’ from political, economic and psychic dominium, and therefore form all structures belonging to the saeculum” (284). What Rose laments is the lack of institutions in either solution. They want to pursue justice, somehow or other, outside of law, outside of institutions (which/because have become corrupt)—that is to say, outside the city, if we allow “city” to evoke all of these things and more.

Rose lays out her own challenge, and we don’t want to deny the need for careful analysis and argument as to whether her alternative is better than Milbank or Taylor (“Because the middle is broken—because these institutions are systematically flawed—does not mean they should be eliminated or mended”). Rather, I want to invoke this strange intersection of contemporary philosophy and theology, as disciplines harboring thinkers wandering outside the modern institutions, thinkers concerned for justice but wary of their history of domination. So, in traveling outside the city to see what God is up to, we find strange allies in philosophy, for philosophers offer insightful critiques to the dominium of the city, and sometimes express their own interest in the one who was crucified outside the city.

At this crossing of paths outside the city we propose to reflect on the convergences and divergences of philosophy and theology, all with an eye for justice, for politics, and for the heavenly city to come. I will allow my comrades to give you a preview of their own interests, but for me this means engaging theologians such as John Howard Yoder, Karl Barth, Augustine, Hegel, St. Paul, Alexander Schmemann, Stanley Hauerwas and (how could I leave him out?) John Milbank. For the philosophers, my list is far too long, but I at least want to mention Henri Bergson, Søren Keirkegaard, and Alain Badiou. I look forward to the conversations with those of you interested in these discourses and thinkers, as I explore ideas in the space between the history of philosophy (“Old Athens”) and the city-to-come (“New Jerusalem”), all with an eye toward justice.


  • brettpotter

    Looking forward to reading this new blog! Milbank, Schmemann, Hegel… sounds like a great conversation.