Jeffrey F. Keuss. Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity, and Mission at the Crossroads. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishers, 2010. 182 pages. $21.00 paperback (Amazon). Click here or on the image to purchase Freedom of the Self from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
Motto: “Please step forward to the rear!” This is an approximate translation of a request I once heard on a tram-car in Warsaw. I propose it as a slogan for the mighty International that will never exist.
If there is something chaotic about this review, then some of the credit goes to the book under consideration. So many different issues are discussed in a very short span by Jeffrey Keuss in his recent book Freedom of the Self that it is difficult to cover all the topics it addresses, the questions it raises explicitly, and the implicit connections it suggests to the reader. Here is just a sample of the personalities, cultural artifacts, and trends that make an appearance in his book: Augustine, Star Wars, Thomas Aquinas, cyberpunk, Jean Baudrillard, YouTube, Jacques Derrida, neo-paganism, Bill Mallonee, Goethe, third world poverty, Emmanuel Levinas, responsible shopping, and Aristotle. One hopes that Freedom of the Self is only the beginning of a much larger project. In this review, I pick up just one dominant thread from the book—the discussion of neo-correlational theology—to give you an idea of its theological embarrassment of riches.
Reading novels and poetry can offer a kind of relief from the turgid prose of so much contemporary theology and philosophy. Literature can make the reader realize, “Why yes, I do have a body,” or “Damn, it turns out all those concepts from my thesis reading list are related to life.” Paul Tillich’s correlational theology was one attempt to bridge this gap between culture and theology by devising a theology of culture. Tillich wrote tons of rather unpoetic prose that convinced many academics to strip Christianity of its particularity and head for the nudist beaches of the Esalen Institute (tie-dye theology as I like to call it). The hollowness of Tillich’s enterprise played itself out (why did it take so long?) with the realization that correlational theology was just an excuse to adopt the latest intellectual fad, label it as theology, and never have to say sorry (see also: Bultmann, Altizer).
That did not prevent the Catholic theologian and University of Chicago professor David Tracy from creating a neo-correlational theology by grinding Christian concepts through the grammar of Bernard Longeran’s method. Tracy wanted to produce a neo-correlational language that could be digested by everyone in the public square. The end result was all too prodigiously palatable: it was embraced by warmongering market-loving neocons and the theologically utopian Concilium wing of post Vatican II Catholic theology. Then in the early nineties Tracy set his sights upon writing a “theology of God” and almost two decades later he is still writing it. He hit a bump in the road when he encountered the work of his colleague Jean-Luc Marion. Tracy admits Marion helped him to rediscover the need for the language of disruption, fragmentation, Luther’s theology of the Cross. He discovered the need to recalibrate any correlational theology with the language of kenosis.
Freedom of the Self can be read as an attempt to work out such a recalibration. The emergent church is the intended audience of this highly compressed volume. I must admit that even though I know next to nothing about the emergent church, I found this book to be full of invaluable insights. And so I say: potential reader, be not afraid of the highly technical first chapter on emergent missional ecclesiology if you are emergently tone-deaf. If anything, get through it and hold onto the chapter’s title, “You Are What You Love—the Kenotic Self.”
The first chapter introduces a recurring structural format, which is the shape of Keuss’s neo-correlational theology: a wide cultural overview to introduce an issue and an exposition of that issue, followed by a conclusion that deepens the issue with either a literary or philosophical text. The chapter begins with a brief overview of the 1980s music scene. Keuss notes, “[. . .] popular music has made its mark on how much of Western music thinks about itself,” and so it seems symptomatic that much of “the music released during the 1980s was filled with claims of the self framed by needing more and more [Madonna, Cindy Lauper and Huey Lewis].” Then he mentions the interruption enacted by U2’s “With or Without You,” which is unpacked as “a song of longing to be alive, yet the resolution to this longing is not to be found in the accumulation of material wealth or experiences, or even in just having more time. Rather, the singer comes to the realization that to be fully alive will require binding his life to the one he loves, and in doing so, he will end any sense of selfhood he had previously known or aspired to” (15). This single U2 song proves to have enough power to fuel three chapters that develop a thicker account of kenosis.
Things even get technical—not to be confused with boring, incomprehensible, or irrelevant—with a line by line analysis of the Greek passages in the New Testament which deal with kenosis. Any reader with even the most rudimentary background in theology will profit from these discussions. But ultimately what does kenotic theology really mean? Here is one possible reply, “[To] understand the call of the kenotic self, we must additionally understand, embrace, and release that which we value so that we are formed by what we are not as we seek after the face of Christ and not our own understanding” (26). This is both a powerful and problematic answer. Problematic because like most other kenotic theologies it leaves the reader asking what will fill that void, what it means to concretely seek after the face of Christ. After the Incarnation and crucifixion comes the resurrection, which is supposed to be an overflowing of glory into the very human Christ who emptied himself for us. What kind of love is that calling us to anyway?
I must admit that John 3:16 or the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2:5-11 have always mystified me. What could these statements possibly mean? Is it possible to make them intelligible? Here is where I put some of my own theological commitments out in the open. I believe that one of the most adequate solutions is a theology of witness where these ancient words are explained through the biographies of people who have lived out the freedom of the self for God in a particular period. This was the approach of the neo-orthodox Hans Urs von Balthasar in the multi-volume Glory of the Lord where he goes through nearly two millennia of Christians living out their theological commitments to Christ’s glory in very different historical contexts.1 Perhaps branding von Balthasar as neo-orthodox is unfair when there are obvious overlaps between his project and the one outlined in Freedom of the Self? The same goes for Barth, whose own biography (far from being angelic, but neither is mine) could serve as an example of kenotic living during a highly volatile and restlessly shifting historical period.
Keuss provides us with such an account in the chapter “Forgetting the Kenotic Self Through ‘Being Given’” (102-117). The chapter collides two of the most remarkable works of twentieth-century theological thought: Jean-Luc Marion’s Being Given with Shusaku Endo’s Silence.2 Staying true to his commitment to correlation, Keuss uses Endo’s fictional characters to help us imaginatively embody the radical commitment of rooting ourselves in a kenotic praxis. Without giving away too much, Endo’s book deals with Catholic missionaries apostatizing under torture in order to save the lives of indigenous believers in seventeenth-century Japan. Endo’s novel is a literary aporia that tests the limits of how much theory needs to be applied or even undermined when faced with the demands of love of God and neighbor. Keuss cites this pregnant passage from Marion to hint at the quiet severity of the kenotic practice solicited by Endo’s novel: “The given testifies, with which it still and always vibrates, not only to its irreversible and intrinsic difference, but also to its incessantly lost and repeated happening. It therefore attests that if it appears (shows itself) it owes this only to its self (which gives itself).” Keuss unpacks this gnarly yet poetic passage like this: “Endo challenges readers to retract their gaze that has resided upon the supposed protagonist Father Rodrigues and instead look beyond toward the summoning silence that is shifting and ever-rupturing givenness—the true protagonist of the story. As theological givenness, Christ is afforded the self-freedom to ‘be given’ and not reduced or framed” (116). Keuss ultimately demonstrates that literature can give fleshed-out forms of the Christian life just as well as biography.
This discussion of a literary text with the help of a philosophical work is taken to such painful extremes that it makes one wonder whether kenosis can be the answer to the world. After all, the Japanese believers were no better off after the missionaries capitulated. Those poor peasants continued to be hunted like animals by their persecutors. Perhaps there are no easy answers and Keuss deserves a lot of credit for taking the discussion into territories that clearly lead to uncomfortable conundrums, such as the following: should the church surrender in the face of places like Japan that Endo characterized as a “swamp” for Christian concepts and forms of life?
The question of cross-cultural correlation guides the last third of the book. There Keuss presents a substantive theology of mission. This theology of mission is framed by an earlier discussion that chastises academic theology: “There seems to be little awareness that what has come to be known as systematic theology by much of the academy is ultimately a Western contextual theology” (53). This only tells part of the story, because Christian theology is something that has always exploded the categories of Western thinking. We should never forget that Christian theology did not develop in a Western milieu. It’s my intuition that that is the reason why Europe has always had trouble with assenting to theology’s content and practicing it to the fullest. G. K. Chesterton knew something of this when he said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; It has been found difficult and left untried.” If nothing else, some, by no means all, portions of Western Christianity deserve credit for becoming aware of its categorical limitations—a great achievement in a world where fundamentalism (not only religious) is on the rise.
The potential for reformation within the tradition is something that comes to the fore in the last part of the book. That is, in fact, the main strength of Freedom of the Self. It starts out wide open, but then becomes more particularistic, with a twist: it is particularistic in what von Balthasar called a concretely universal way. Such a strategy distinguishes it from probably one of the most ambitious recent attempts at situating the Christian mission within a globalized and urban context, Graham Ward’s Cities of God. I’m being a bit unfair, but Ward reverses Keuss by starting out with a robust claim for the Christian narrative and then diluting it into just one of the many stories we tell to ourselves and our contemporaries. Why bother with such a crippled theology? Why not go the full nine and throw up our hands like Mark C. Taylor by indiscriminately tossing theological categories at a “world without redemption” (part of the subtitle to his book Confidence Games) without even hoping they will stick?4 If anything like a theology is to survive, we need to resist such hyper-correlational, or rather collapsed, theologies.
When such proposals are out there for consideration, is it not a relief to hear that the “kenotic self as missionally open begins with the root image of a living personal triune God whose self-releasing and self-relinquishing act of kenosis empowers loving relations with humanity most clearly seen in the incarnation” (127). What’s more, this is not something that can be put into practice without substantial theological content to back it up, “Rather than some missional methodologies that overly utilize the human sciences to determine the approach of the data set known as the human condition, missional openness begins with the authority of Scripture, canonically centered and forever formed under the guidance of the triune God expressed in tradition and revelation” (127, emphasis is mine). This thicker account of the church is then applied to missions directed at a world demolished by our own grasping consumerism: “We acknowledge with confidence that the world is God’s and all that dwells in it—there are no owners, we are all ‘leasing agents’ in creation. As such, we claim the right for marginalized voices in the global market to be not only heard but listened, and their words acted upon” (139).
I will close by suggesting that Keuss could look for solutions in Western Christianity’s unacknowledged other: the Third Church. Not without some foreboding and alarmist rhetoric Philip Jenkins in his The Next Christendom characterizes the emerging Christendom in the global South as “traditionalist, orthodox, and supernatural.”5 The irony is that perhaps by listening to the global Other, learning to address it with love, we will become more fully ourselves. You are what you love, love your neighbor as yourself, and so on. What could be more challenging then such a step forward to the back? We can derive hope from the knowledge that it has been done in our time: solidarity in Poland transformed a whole society for the better part of a decade and Bishop Tutu is struggling to sustain it in postapartheid South Africa. Can such a recalibration be sustained in the long term? The fully articulated neo-correlational answer to these questions will need to be more adequate than the previous efforts of correlational theology. If it fails, just like many of Tillich’s female graduate students, we’ll end up getting screwed and screwing other people. This is no joke.
1. See Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1 (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1982).
2. See Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002) and Shusaku Endo, Silence (Marlboro, NJ: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969).
3. G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1994), 37.
4. See Graham Ward, Cities of God (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000) and Mark C. Taylor, Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
5. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 9.