Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Cheap Grace

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Following Jesus is tough, we have to both put aside sin while also trusting Jesus. Plus we're all works in progress, facing different types of problems. While we were still enemies God extended grace to us, inviting us into the relationship of the Father and the Son. But a relationship isn't static, if we trust Jesus we'll respond with obedience.

You could say one of the features of Bonhoeffer's theology was a type of radical discipleship, an emphasis on the way the disciples of Jesus work out their salvation together.  Just as grace was extended to us we extend grace to each other. And just as we're in a relationship with God, we're in relationships with one another. One of the big emphasis of the New Testament is "one-anothering", we love, serve and forgive one-another. God works out the doctrines of grace in our lives though prayer, preaching and other people.

So it can be tempting for Christians in conflict to demand grace, without the costly process of negotiation and self-reflection. Conflict is part of this world, there's no escaping it. However the disciples of Jesus work inside God's grace, work at solving problems and disagreeing positively within a mutual relationship with each other and God. Grace isn't something to be wielded by the aggrieved party to leverage compliance. The different aspects of following Jesus; repentance,  compassion, patience, self-sacrifice etc shouldn't be used to gain power over the other followers of Jesus.

Psychologically we have sympathy for the oppressed. Spiritually it makes sense if you've been forgiven to forgive others at the drop of a hat. However, Bonhoeffer's neologism is a useful reminder that true grace is costly. If you're in the midst of a conflict, negotiating something difficult, it can be confusing to be told 'to show grace', 'be more loving' or 'have more compassion'. No doubt if you live on this earth you should be more of all those things, we're all works in progress. However, discipleship is about working out things together, seeking the best for each other. Don't weaponise grace and don't let it be weaponised against you. 

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Cinematic Critical Theory

Critical Theory is about identifying and challenging the dominate hegemonic discourse. It turns useful analytical tools into an ideological system. The key components of Critical Theory are the oppressed, the oppressors and the system the oppressors use to crush and control the oppressed. Critical Theory is about the present.  It lacks an origin story beyond the fact that oppression has a past and it lacks an imagined future beyond the fact that there should be less oppression. In a way it's the magnification of a good psychological trait, our sympathy for the victim, into a political system with far reaching consequences. Previously Marxism sought to identify and overthrow the class-system. The wealthy and the political elite were the oppressors. Now the remit has grown, and categorising the different forms of oppression has become more complex. Intersectionality is a way of describing and ranking oppression. Finally Critical Theory has a revolutionary bent, the dominant hegemonic discourse shouldn't just be discussed, it needs to be dismantled. Which means the core currency, the underlying fact of Critical Theory is power. Taking power from the oppressors and giving it to the oppressed. Which makes the film Land of the Blind (2006), a brilliant prophetic portrait how of what a world dominated by Critical Theory might look like.

Land of the Blind (2006) 
Scott Alexander over at the Slate Star Codex describes how the New Atheism morphed into the current Social Justice movement. (The Social Justice movement, with its laudable desire to prevent oppression is the popular vanguard of Critical Theory.)  Fight Club (1999), Collateral (2004) and Dark Knight (2009) were a cinematic portrayals of Nihilism, the final destination of New Atheism. Those three films are cinematic portrayals of world in which God is dead. However to loosely paraphrase Lord of the Rings, the world has changed. Critical Theory is the new paganism (the new expression of the default human setting). Land of the Blind (2006) a British film made during the era of post-modernism correctly identified the threads of Critical Theory, which Scott Alexander argues were emerging during that period. The film is remarkable is the way it portrays the mechanism of critical theory. A dominate group uses propaganda to subjugate the oppressed. However their victims, the oppressed respond with their own system of propaganda and eventually and violently overthrow the oppressed, but [spoiler] become the oppressors.

Critical Theory in its own words 
Neil Shenvi helpfully observes these six characteristics of Critical Theory and illustrates them with representative quotes from Critical Theorists.

  1. Group identity is more important than individual identity. “Setting aside your sense of uniqueness is a critical skill that will allow you to see the big picture of the society in which we live; individualism will not” (Robin DiAngelo)
  2. The oppressor group uses the hegemonic discourse to oppress the oppressed. “Dominant groups set the norms by which the minoritized group is judged.” (Robin DiAngelo)
  3. The primary moral duty is free the oppressed. “social justice – the elimination of all forms of social oppression.” (Mary McClintock)
  4. Lived experience is the measure of reality. “To live with equality in a diverse, pluralistic society, we have to accept the fact that all groups and individuals have a legitimate claim to what is true and real for them” (Cooper Thompson) 
  5. Oppressors are unaware of their oppression.  “Those in power sleep well at night; their conduct does not seem to them like oppression” (Richard Delgado) 
  6. Intersectionality increases and makes oppression unique. “inter-relatedness of sex, race, and class oppression” (Bell Hooks).
A Caution and Evergreen College
Critical Theory shouldn't be confused with the things like the Civil Rights movement or a milder broader Social Justice movement. The world is broken and needs fixing. The trouble starts when specific campaigns or discussion become ideological. Ideology requires an allegiance, and sometimes drastic steps to implement it.  Ideology changes the way you see the whole world rather than a specific idea to fix a specific injustice. Ideology itself can be either good or bad - depending on its content, but as a human race we haven't figured out how different ideologies co-exist harmoniously. The difficulty as with all ideas lies in the application. If Land of the Blind is an imaginative exploration of Critical Theory then the Evergreen College incident of 2017 is a real life unintended sociological experiment of what Critical Theory looks like applied to real life. 

A Christian response 
Tim Keller used to have a cheeky rejoinder to post-modern types. Roughly: If you assert there is no truth, how do you know that assert is true? This is why the post-modern project was a dead end. Nihilism is unsustainable as that trio of films above so perceptively illustrate. The difficulty with challenging Critical Theory is its immediacy, history and eschatology are irrelevant. The other challenge is its powerful psychological component. Once humans were good, and that ability to sympathise with victims lingers in our subconscious. So it feels counter-intuitive to challenge an ideology that is officially about removing oppression. These are my two suggestions for Christians.

  1. Imagination: Because Critical Theory is embedded in the present it lacks the ability to imagine alternatives and the ability to imagine consequences. Christians can weaken Critical Theory through exercising the imagination. For example Land of the Blind (2006). 
  2. Consistency: Although rationality and logic are perceived by Critical Theory to be tools of the hegemonic discourse, its still worth asking if Critical Theory is meeting its own goals, is there less oppression, are these political actions designed to reduce oppression actually creating more oppression? 

Friday, December 20, 2019

'The will of him who sent me'

The Son responds to the Father. Jesus' obedience; "not my will but yours be done", is a way of describing the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father. That's how Andrew Moody fixes the subordination controversy, although his PhD project was born long before the most recent convulsions. This is how Moody puts the question of his thesis. “Initially my question is simply whether it is legitimate for orthodoxy to posit any kind of volitional distinction of taxis to the divine persons?" (The Will of Him Who Sent Me, 2011, 4) And the answer via the Nicene Creed, Maximus the Confessor and others, is a clear yes. “Divine decisions might be seen to begin with the Father and are embraced by the Son in line with the order of subsistence.”(5) And we can say this because of how the Nicene Creed describes Jesus as the "eternally begotten" Son of the Father. In other-words, the Incarnation is an expression, an outworking, of a pre-existing relationship between the Father and the Son. The taxis (the order) we see in the eternal Trinity is expressed in the relationships among the divine persons we see in Scripture. The implication for our salvation is profound. We are able to know God, albiet through a glass darkly. The sacrificial death of Jesus makes knowledge of God morally possible, and the miraculous conception of Jesus makes knowledge of God physically possible. Reading Moody's thesis earlier this year highlighted for me how much the Trinity is about who God is and how God saves.

Moody's demonstration of how this relationship between the Son and Father is worked out in Creation and Redemption, forms the basis our ability to know and understand who God is. Reading his thesis convinced me of the crucial importance of the phrase"eternally begotten". Sadly various characters in and around the subordination debate (and on both sides) downplay this vital bit of Nicene theology. Here's a sample (270-271).
  • Millard Erickson 
    • “To speak of one of the persons as unorginate and the others as either eternally begotten or proceeding from the father is to introduce an element of causation or origination that must ultimately involve some type of subordination among them.”
  • Gilbert Bilezikian 
    • “Gilbert Bilezikian waves away eternal generation as a “credal construction, subject to aleatory interpretations.”
  • Rebecca Merrill Goothuis
    • “Rebecca Merrill Goothuis describes divine fatherhood as a metaphor having nothing to do with ‘god having reproduced himself.”
  • Kevin Giles, 
    • “Kevin Giles, ... tries to collapse the monarchy of the Father into a TF Torrance-inspired scheme where the divine being itself is the cause of the persons.”
  • Bruce Ware 
    • “Bruce Ware relegates it to a footnote, declaring that descriptions of the Son as ‘only-begotten’ or ‘eternally begotten’ are ‘highly speculative and not grounded in biblical teaching.’” 
  • Wayne Grudem
    • “suggests that the causal language of orthodoxy really means social hierarchy.”
  • Gerald Bray
    • “Even the usually careful Gerald Bray stumbles here, implying that the Cappadocians invented the method of distinguishing the persons according to their mode of origin, and reducing Calvin’s theology of trinitarian relations to functional order.”
At the lowest resolution we could say that God is one being in three persons. But Moody is delving deep into the relationship between two of the persons in particular, the Father and the Son. Moody is answering the challenge, can you talk about this relationship without introducing divisions and multiple wills into God's eternal being? “The pro-Nicene scheme aligns with the Bible’s consistent depiction of the derivative and familial language concerning the person who is the Son, Word, Image, Radiance, Stamp of the Father.” (271) Subordination as a term simply carries too much psychological baggage and creates too many unnecessary theological consequences. It's not a helpful way to summarise the eternal relationship between the Father and Son. However Moody's argument is that the Son submits to the Father’s decision (which is not the same thing as the Son submits to the Father’s will.) "The Father chooses the Son assents." (283)

[photograph by Tommi Selander via Unspalsh]