Saturday, August 16, 2014

Half Awake in a Fake Empire: On #Ferguson

I know the way I perceive the world is colored considerably by the fact that I am a white male. When I speak with friends who are female, or African-American, I worry that as much as I think I understand them when they share their stories of struggle with racism or misogyny, the truth is, my perceptions are so distorted by my experience as a white male that I will never fully be able to grasp the feelings some African-Americans have when they hear of or experience events in Ferguson.

The truth of this shapes everything we do, whether it is the work of the church, or formulations of religious doctrines. It's why I value reading an author like James Cone who argues that there needs to be a black theology that doesn't take its queues from white theology because white theology is so distorted by its own sense of entitlement and power that it simply can't legitimately critique black theology.

The same is true of all our experiences and the decisions we make about the truth-claims of others. There is a sense in which it is subjectivity all the way down, and what we perceive, the truth of situations, is colored indelibly by our experience.

The problem here is that, if I don't share the experience of others, it remains a puzzle to me how I should appropriately respond. Should I remain silent? What should I do?

If the topic is one of misogyny and abuse of women, if I speak up about it, or write about it, it might be an example of mansplaining. I end up explaining something as a white male that should have been transparent because of the explanations offered by members of whatever community it is I'm speaking up for/with.

Allies walk a fine line with paternalism.

I have the feeling this is the case because although Kierkegaard famously remarked, "Subjectivity is truth," in actuality it might be truer to say that "intersubjectivity is truth." What I mean here is that, if subjectivity is truth, then truth really does break down into an atomistic, relative thing. What's true is what is true to me, alone.

And it is worth us considering this, because it is the way most of us live in the world most days. What's true is what is true to us.

But if we are going to resolve, in any fashion, entrenched and endemic problems like institutionalized racism, we are going to need to shift to an understanding of inter-subjectivity as truth. Inter-subjectivity is two or more subjects arriving at an understanding of truth that takes into account the subjective experience of each.

In the recent Ferguson struggles, one issue, perhaps the major issue, was that the sides could not and did not understand the experience of the other. The white police force failed to understand what it feels like to be an African-American community that fears, in many cases, police action. Conversely, the protestors likely couldn't get into the minds of the police and what they were thinking in their para-military approach to the protests.

Notice that on Thursday, when leaders came in who understood the subjective experience of both sides better, peace prevailed. Ronald Johnson was both a Ferguson native AND Missouri Highway Patrol Captain. His subjective experience mixed both sides of the line, and made an incredible difference in how everyone approached the conflict.

It always amazes me that groups in power think they can hold a discussion on a topic related to an oppressed community without including that community. Straight people like to talk about the LGBTQ community without including them in the discussions. People develop opinions about Islam, or make truth claims about the Scriptures of other religious traditions, without reading those texts, or becoming friends with people from those traditions.

So if you/we are struggling, trying to identify how we should respond to the wide variety of very real problems we hear about in the news, from the recent surge of unaccompanied minors to our borders, to the race issues in our nation, or the sadness we feel when we hear of Robin William's death and his bipolar and depression, let me suggest that there are three steps we can take right away that will help.

1) Realize that anything you believe you know about race, immigrants, or mental health is colored by your subjective experience. You don't know what you don't know.

2) To gain understanding, engage in love of neighbor, the next step is to "subject" yourself to the truth of the other, especially the truth of oppressed or marginalized communities, to listen to them and trust that their experience is also true and valid even if it isn't your experience. In fact you may need to accept the possibility that their truth is MORE true than your truth.

3) Do the hard work of discovering the intersubjective truth that lies between you and the other whose truth is different than yours.

This, I think, is what Cone means when he says that white theologians will need to die to their whiteness in order to become black. Because to truly walk in faith, we have to die to sin (which in this case is the absolutization of our own subjective truth as if it were truth for everyone). H. Richard Niebuhr believed that the great source of evil in this life is the absolutizing of the relative. Individuals do it. Communities do it. Nations do it.

I think this shift to inter-subjectivity, dying to self in order to live truly in the neighbor, may be the best definition of true repentance, which of course is the first and most vital action we can take whenever we lament the struggles we hear on the news. Then, after repentance, we wake up, and go walk with those neighbors.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Technology and Faith Top Ten Reading List

Interested in thinking more intentionally about the intersection of faith and technology in an era when both play such a major cultural role? Consider these:

A great primer on faith as it is lived out on a variety of social media platforms.

A how-to ministry resource for the church in social media.

A fantastic book by a leading Christian commentator on film and video games.

Two books with contrasting views of how we should think about faith and gaming.

I would be remiss not mentioning that I've written a book on faith formation in a transmedia era. Quite a lot of the book examines the role of media as technology. The bibliography contains an even more exhaustive list of reads to consider, and/or look through the list of books people have purchased on Amazon when they purchased Mediating Faith.

My four favorite works of theology relative to new technologies.

Two books, from different eras and by quite different authors, that offer warnings about new media. I can't stop thinking about the Eggers novel, and it has dramatically changed how I approach new media in its totalizing aspects. And Benjamin is Benjamin, your movie watching will never be the same after reading his essay on mechanical reproducibility.

The enigmatic "father" of new media studies and faith formation.

Two great sci-fi novels to consider (both are amazing but will take some work to read well).

Ethnography of technology, faith, and human formation (boyd is hopeful, Turkle more skeptical).

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Who is Robert Saler?

I don't inquire into Robert Saler's identity because he is mysterious and unknown in the mode of Thomas Pynchon. And I don't ask it in order to launch an ad hominem discourse undermining his authorship based on biographical or personal details.

I ask the question because Robert Saler, in his new book, Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church (Emerging Scholars), launches an inquiry into what he calls "theological authorship" and this in relationship to the place of such authorship in the life of the church and the method by which we establish authorial authority.

I don't need to review Saler's CV here. You can read it for yourself if you're curious. Instead, what I'd like to do in this review is simply ask a set of questions relative to Saler's central thesis, but employ those questions in the direction of the intellectual product he has brought to us--namely, a book that originated as a dissertation.

Let's start with the dissertation. Saler's book is published in an outstanding new monograph series from Fortress Press, the Emerging Scholars Series. This is a curated, selective dissertation series dedicated to highlighting creative, innovative new projects from new scholars in biblical studies, theology, and Christian history.

Since Saler in his dissertation posits that theological authorship as we understand it is particularly influenced by the 19th century valorization of originality and innovation as essential elements of the authorial craft, we might consider the entire Emerging Scholars series as a living example of this 19th century valorization.

Saler further argues that this innovation is the most salient feature of authorship for self-authentication, above other things like obligation to an ecclesial tradition or governing structures of a church. I would add to Saler's point one further thesis, that although authors in such a series are not beholden to a specific ecclesial tradition or governing structure, they are however subject to the "curating" process of the publishing house that may or may not publish their dissertation, and further subject to the critical review of their dissertation readers. Since Saler wrote his dissertation for a Lutheran seminary, and published it with a Lutheran publishing house, there may be more of a magisterium in place than he acknowledges in his book. And curiously, his book is a product of a magisterium that is also in some sense the marketplace.

But returning to Saler's central thesis and concept, Saler takes time, as many dissertations do, to place his argument within an historical and theological context. This is actually one of my favorite reasons for reading dissertations, and Saler's in particular. It is often illuminating and gratifying to walk through a theological period, or be re-introduced to theological authors, out of the perspective of a theologian and academic who has spent the past few years immersing themselves deeply in their work.

Here is Saler's central thesis: Authorship is always a kind of political transaction with authorization and therefore authority. In the case of theological authorship, the clear and most compelling option for establishing authority is what theologians often call the teaching authority of the church--the magisterium.

In order to get us to concede his point, after a rather fascinating historical comparison of Tyndale and More in their exchanges over theological authorship, Saler walks us through a comparison of Schleiermacher and Newman, with Newman offering the catholic, magisterial option, and Schleiermacher grounding the poetic, virtuoso marketplace author. These two chapters illustrate the historical and research work any author of a dissertation needs to accomplish in order to establish themselves with any kind of authority as an author deserving of a ph.D.

Along the way, Saler coins a term, "polis ecclesiologists," to classify (perhaps too broadly and simply) a set of theologians who believe it is desirable to have a concrete, enduring, and visible magisterium that establishes the public teaching function of the church in the world. Into this camp he tosses authors like Reinhard Hütter, Ola Tjørhom, Carl Braaten R.R. Reno, and Paul Griffiths, many of whom have converted to Roman Catholicism, and/or are Lutherans with an evangelical catholic disposition.

For this reason, Saler's book is an excellent primer or inquiry into the evangelical catholic movement within Lutheranism.

Here are some of my enduring questions for Saler. First, given that he sees the "polis ecclesiology" as the most sustainable alternative to his proposal of church as diffused spatialized event, I do wonder why he so readily elides the Schleiermacher option from his constructive proposal. He has a rather humorous way of summarizing this midway in his book: Enter the theologian as hip virtuoso; enter the genius as doctrinal author" (82). What's so bad about this approach, actually? It takes place in the marketplace, which Saler finds problematic... and yet his very arguments are made as Saler the hip, virtuoso theologian, and whether we trust Saler in his overall argument rests to a considerable extent on whether we consider Saler a genius doctrinal author.

Furthermore, I wonder where rationality is in all of this. Saler himself relies on rationality through and through. This is an incredibly well-argued and programmatic dissertation. Saler establishes the truth of his claims through rational argumentation, yet rationality as a form of authorial authorization does not make an appearance in the book. It makes me wonder if Saler believes rationality is counter to the weakness and diffusive spatiality he posits as the concrete alternative to a public church with a magisterium. 

Saler writes, "To the extent that one wishes to have the church function as a concrete, distinct public with the means of authorizing theological production in such a way that escapes the logic of the marketplace, then a magisterium is necessary" (176). Saler concedes this point, but I believe it concedes too much, but in a direction somewhat different than he intends. It gives up on the marketplace, which is one kind of problem. It also fails to consider other loci for authorization such as rationality itself, or even other positivist options like Barth's Word of God.

In his concluding chapter, Saler takes up the task of describing the alternative, church as diffusively spatialized event, through the work of Joseph Sittler in his Called to Unity speech. For Saler, the church is not best thought of in spatial terms as a concrete, visible publi that is self-present to its own authorization (187), but rather as diffusively spatialized event. 

Saler takes a very puzzling turn at this point. Instead of investing time in the concluding chapter outlining what this ecclesiology might entail, he launches a lengthy inquiry into Barth's Romerbrief (in dialectical conversation with Spivak's Can the Subaltern Speak?), arguing that the book itself models the nature and task of the church that Barth envisions, an intriguing and fully realized eschatology. As odd as this sounds, I think Saler means it. In other words, Barth's Romans commentary IS the diffuse, spatialized event Saler proposes as an alternative ecclesiology to the magisterium of the polis ecclesiologists.

Where does this leave us, then? As strange as it sounds, and as overwhelmingly bookish as Saler's proposal ends up being, I think I largely agree with it, even if perhaps for different reasons than Saler. I think Saler is arguing here that the church exists in the world much like Barth's Roman's commentary exists in the world. It has no specific power per se, and yet that book when it came on the scene set off an explosion that rocked the theological world, and set the course of the church in some new directions. At the same time, even though Barth's theology has been strong in that sense of changing the course of theology, it has never, unlike the work of some other theologians, firmly claimed or formed a "movement." There's not a Barth church. Instead, the internal inconsistencies and weakness of his work have left his theology more diffuse, spatialized but not thoroughly public, an event rather than a building.

He writes, "I constructed a vision of authorship in which the destabilized subjectivity of the author, the necessary failure of theology to achieve total representation of God or God's creatures, and the ultimate 'worthlessness' of that theology to the marketplace are positive goods to be welcomed by Christians seeking to live out their lives as witnesses to God's redemptive mission toward all creation" (236-237). Worthless, but I have a feeling Fortress Press hopes to make some money selling Saler's book?

Although I wish Saler would have gotten more constructive in his constructive chapter, I admit that most dissertations leave that portion of their work weak, and perhaps on purpose, because the focus of dissertation writing is more on the historical inquiry and research, the assembly of resources to make a new argument, so the argument itself is the main constructive work rather than the proposals that emerge from it. In this sense, Saler's conclusion is apt, and inspiring: "In the near future, it will be important for other ecclesiologists to follow suit with similarly critical assessments of how the 'marketplace' of academic theology can and can't host 'worthless' truth telling" (238). 

Or this: "Like all ecclesial codifications, denominations as entities are under holy threat by the unpredictability of the church event, and for that threat they should be profoundly grateful" (233). So my last question: Can a published dissertation be a church event?

The Six Most Popular Posts at Lutheran Confessions

Perhaps you are a long-time reader of Lutheran Confessions. Perhaps you are brand new to the blog.

Kicking off August of 2014, I offer here a review of the six most frequently read posts on the blog.

Like anyone committed to ecumenism, I grieve the fractured state of Christ's church. On the other hand and in the meantime, we are still called to celebrate the diverse gifts present in the various denominations and movements of Christianity in the world, and there's much reason to celebrate the ELCA. These are 11 reasons I'm proud to pastor in the ELCA.

If you're like me, you are curious what is "next" in the church, what are the developing edges, the innovative approaches. This set of interviews with mission developers in the ELCA is one great way to actually see the face of mission development in the ELCA.

The church goes through ups and downs. Individual congregations do also. These are 5 signs you are part of a health church. Ultimately, it's more fun and worthwhile focusing on building signs of health than worrying over the dis-ease. Invest in the health.

What does the fox say? That enigmatic existential question asked by pop singers from Norway rose into a tidal wave of popularity, and this post, five things norwegian foxes can teach theologians, surfs the wave.

A while back, quite a while back, when Mark Driscoll was controversial but not fallen, cult-like in his popularity but still basically orthodox in a Reformed fashion, I wrote this post, Look at Me Mark Driscoll, about what it is like emotionally to be a pastor while not having the charisma of Mark. 

If there is any one topic that actually creates all the other divisions that exist between various stripes of Christian movements in North America, it has to be differences in biblical interpretation. So this was my best attempt at describing my own, and I think many Lutherans, method of holding and interpreting scripture. Hi, my name is Clint, and I'm the least-bible minded pastor in America.