May 1, 2014 / From the Editor, Uncategorized
Each Friday we compile a list of interesting links and articles our editors find from …
April 14, 2014
By Zachary Thomas Settle
There is a tendency in contemporary Evangelical thought and culture towards dread. Dread is not the object of desire per se, but rather a natural companion of a certain articulation of the redemptive process. The individualism that underlies Evangelical views of sin, salvation, and even God tend to place these concepts within a register of dread. At the heart of the evangelical ethos is a radical individualism, an ideological prejudice that drastically shapes evangelical praxis and doctrinal formation. That is, Evangelicalism typically teaches and trains its participants to inhabit the world exclusively in light of some sort of personal relationship with God. The core of discipleship, then, is primarily about initiating and managing this relationship. The primary issue at stake in God’s existence, within this logic, is the redemption of the individual from a life of sin. This ideological formulation also serves to shape a fairly nuanced reading of Scripture, a reading that typically passes as ‘natural,’ as given. At the core of this tendency is the supposition of an individualistic hermeneutic. This hermeneutic places the self at the center of the Biblical narrative; it is an inversion of value in which the self is privileged above the Godhead and his activity in the world. Within such a reading, the individual privileges the self above all else. That is, all passages are read in light of our relationship with God, as this is the primary issue at stake in our being in the world.
There are a number of problems with such a tendency toward individualism. To begin with, the personal relationship creates a number of particular misgivings about the nature of God’s relationality. It recognizes a substitutionary view of atonement at the expense of a more robust view precisely because the primary problem of the world is considered to be the sin of the self. The whole of Scripture tends to be read around God’s supposed address to this central problem. God’s activity is rendered as a crude economic exchange according to a precise formula: damnation for sin or favor for righteousness. This paints a particular picture of a God who is perpetually angry, who exists in a state of negativity and dissatisfaction, ultimately waiting to trade punishment for injustice. In addition to this, the notion of a completely personal relationship with God is simply too much for one to bear. The anxiety that tends to stem from such an understanding of one’s own being in the world is terrifying, especially when the relationship is predicated on the grounds of one’s own incapability and corruption before an angry God. This is routinely the case when the individualistic hermeneutic places the status of the self’s righteousness as the crux of existence.
While there are some obvious problems with the plainly stated effects of this sort of radical individualism, such an ideological position is improperly founded. This radical individualism can’t even live up to the core value of conservative evangelicalism: faithfulness to Scripture. If the larger Christian tradition is to actually take evangelicalism at its word, if we are to read the Bible historically and narratively as a truthful text, as a mode of revelation, then there is no legitimate foundation for such an individualistic tendency. When read solely in an individualist manner, the passages become distorted, as this was not the way the original hearers and writers would have understood it. The Hebrews never considered their relationship with God to be anything less than a communal project. In fact, the Hebrews saw their encounter with God as a shared experience in which they, as an entire people group that God was redeeming, were confronting the rest of the world with the nature and meaning of grace, of an alternative kingdom of people that drastically shaped life on this earth.1
Such a communal posture radically orients the overall narrative of the Scriptures toward new horizons, and it therefore shapes the bounds by which the Chrisitan community can and should read those very Scriptures. Evangelical individualism’s radical hermeneutic injects our own ideological prejudices into the text, thereby privileging the self’s status as a sinner before God above God’s actual activity in the world, which only serves to create a distinct dreadfulness in the life of the believer. A certain sort of communal reading of the text itself opens the reader up to new possibilities. By reading the text in light of God’s person and work in the world, the reader is training herself to identify her own story in light of the larger narrative of Scripture. When freed from the overwhelming, ceaseless personal moral examination, the individual becomes free to enter more fully into God’s story as an active participant. If sin is a category of neglect of the neighbor, then such a reading also cultivates a certain sense of attentiveness.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers a helpful corrective to this tendency in his explanation and analysis of a truly Christocentric subjectivity. The chief concern of Bonhoeffer’s theological anthropology is the soteriological problem of the ego.2 The problem of power, Bonhoeffer argues, takes both personal and social forms, and it is deeply indebted to Luther’s concept of the cor curvum in se, or the heart turned in on itself. Bonhoeffer’s explanation of the solution to the problem of power—i.e. Jesus Christ—also takes a sociological form. He argued that the work of the God-man Jesus inaugurated a new form of sociality for human being, one in which love actually liberates the egotistical self from its slavery to its own self, thereby freeing it to enter into an economy of love and movement toward the other, an economy not unlike that of the Trinity as it is actually recorded in Scripture.3 Bonhoeffer recognized all subjectivity as being rooted in the person of Jesus, which shaped his ecclesiology is dramatic ways. Such an understanding ultimately led him to posit that it is only in our encounter with the other that the individual actually encounter the person of Jesus.4
This is precisely why Bonheoffer’s project is so readily akin to the work of Emmanuel Levinas.5 The Levinasian project stands as a proper endeavor in the phenomenological tradition. While Levinas himself was certainly skeptical of the task of Christian theology, his skepticism must be read as a warranted critique. Levinas argued that by making God the object of study per se, the theologian compromises the transcendence of the divine. But perhaps more importantly, Levinas also argues that such an object of study blurs the importance of the analysis of the self’s encounter with the other, through whom we access the divine.6 Levinas also argues that it is only in the face of the Other that we encounter the face of God. The thrust of such a reading lies in the notion that the Godhead is primarily (possibly even exclusively) revealed in and through your neighbor, the very neighbor that a radically individualistic soteriology and hermeneutic aims to annihilate altogether. Levinas goes on to argue that all ontology is essentially preceded by ethics, by our responsibility for hospitality to the other. This reality, Levinas claims, is the primary issue of human existence, an issue that precedes any sort of metaphysical or ontological speculation.
The task of overcoming an insufficient, individualized hermeneutic must revolve around the process of recreation; it should be nothing less than the revaluation of all pre-conceived values. A legitimate read of the narrative and history of the sacred scriptures has to privilege the activity of God in the world above all else. The Christian individual must learn to structure their life around God, to situate their own narrative in the broader context of God’s work in the world.7 Such a narratival and ideological shift would transform a number of theological concepts, which would also entail a helpful shift in the lived lives of those believing such concepts. To begin with, there should be a shift in discourse on sin. The category of sin would refer less to personal issues and shortcomings and start highlighting out communities’ failures at the expense of our neighbors. This would stem from a different understanding of the incarnation and the atonement, which would begin to recognize and acknowledge that there is more at stake in Jesus’ death and resurrection than the forgiveness of my personal sins. But such an ideological shift also frees us up on an existential level. Evangelicals can be normal human beings again, as the burden of a personal relationship with the God of the cosmos has been recontextualized.
Even Jesus’ analysis of legitimate redemption points to our engagement with the other in the communities in which we find ourselves. In fact, he goes so far as to proclaim that masses of people will mistake the nature and legitimacy of their discipleship because of the energy they expelled towards nothingness.8 Legitimate redemption is only possible through a concrete engagement with a community of people, with people who are not you. There is no access to the divine apart from the life of your neighbor. Personal redemption, then, is nothing more, but certainly nothing less, entrance into the community of saints.
1. N.T. Wright Evil and the Justice of God
2. Clifford Green, Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1999), 109.
3. Miroslav Volf,, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Eerdmans, Grad Rapids: 1997).
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 140-141.
5. Paul D Janz, “Bonhoeffer, This-Worldliness, And the Limits of Phenomenology,” Chap. 2, In Bonhoeffer and Continental Thought: Cruciform Philosophy, edited by Brian Gregor and Jens Zimmermann (Bloomingtom: Indiana University Press, 2009), 58.
6. Michael Purcell, Levinas and Theology (Ca,bridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 2.
7. Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (University of Notre Dame Press: South Bend, 1983), 25.
8. Matthew 25.
Zachary Thomas Settle
Zachary Thomas Settle is currently a PhD student in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt, where he is working in the areas of theology and economy. He is the theology editor for The Other Journal, and he has written for numerous publications, including the Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory and The Other Journal. He is also the coeditor of Dreams, Doubt and Dread: The Spiritual in Film.