Make sure and read all the way to the bottom, to see an exclusive video, Theology, Gift, Boba Fett and Han Solo in Carbonite
An Interview With Professor Gregory Walter of St. Olaf College on his recent book, Being Promised: Theology, Gift, and Practice, in the Sacra Doctrina: Christian Theology for a Postmodern Age series)
1) You and I have talked about the process of writing theology, and your own development as a writer through this project. Tell me more about that, what you learned, how your sabbatical went, how you balance family and writing life, etc.
The background of the book: I started this project in 2010 with a proposal to Eerdmans. I had written some of the initial work that became chapter 2 that was reviewed as part of the book proposal. I also had published an essay on Giorgio Agamben and political theology that supported part of chapter 3. The rest was unwritten and in draft format at the time.
I had already worked through a great deal of the anthropological and phenomenological material on the gift by the time of my 2011-2012 sabbatical. The really new material that I really enjoyed developing was the stuff on place in chapter 5. I learned a lot studying phenomenological topology and was able to make sense of the late Heidegger a little bit more. I had completely ignored Graham Harman’s development of the late Heidegger toward his object-oriented ontology and started thinking about connections of my work to that project only after I had finished the manuscript. There’s a bit to work on there. I’m amazed at how far I’ve come to only find myself staring Heidegger in the face once more.
I wrote the bulk of it during a sabbatical in the 2011-2012 school year; I finished revisions and submitted the final draft during June of 2012. I spent the year writing on MWF and caring for our then one-year old son. I knocked off work most of those days at 2pm and started at 830am. For a while I had daily word quotas but that gave way to a steady rhythm. I tried my best to write in such a way to integrate it in the rhythm of our family life. I wouldn’t say that this balanced out all the time or that I was able to pull it off without any problems, but I’m glad I don’t have to go into hermit-in-the-woods mode to write. I still do and still am glad. I think it has made me a much more economical writer. I can’t really afford to wait around for inspiration. I’m more like a hack than a genius, I guess.
2) What initially drew you to "gift" and "promise"? Having written this book, what are the next steps for you relative to gift and promise?
Promise is easy. It’s such a basic category in the Bible and so central to the Lutheran tradition, the theological tradition to which I belong.
Gift, however, was newer to me. I first started reading about it in Robert W. Jenson’s Systematic Theology where he made an aside about the postmodern problem of whether the gift can be given. I had long been a student of Jacques Derrida. After that, the work of John Milbank and Jean-Luc Marion led me down the rabbit hole. Marion and Derrida’s constant pressure on phenomenology to clarify its relationship between the given, givenness, and the gift was the soil in which I was nurtured as a student of phenomenology. An abiding interest and a few writing projects where I used aspects of Axel Honneth’s work on recognition and Adorno’s negative dialectics reinforced my interest in the relationships between gift and practice. Oswald Bayer’s writing on the “categorical gift” brought it all together for me, which, when pared with my work on promise in the Luther Renaissance, convinced me that promise was worth thinking about in the terms of gift-exchange.
I think I can do more with place and promise. In the book I drew in outline the character of community and gift and the fourfold of Heidegger and non-human objects. The fourfold that composes the thing has become very important in Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology. I have a monograph on sacramentology, community, and practice in the works.
3) I understand that some people want you to translate this book into a more "practical" idiom. Yet one of the things I value most about our friendship and theological conversations is that you push me to consistently think theologically. What is it about remaining thorough-goingly theological, anyway?
I don’t really know how to do anything else! God help me!
4) God, being, phenomenon, promise. Help me think about these things a little bit more.
I think that phenomenology is a useful theological tool even though it isn’t something that is necessarily theological in its character. In fact, it can be remarkably agnostic and even anti-theological in its employment.
The use of this complex and sometimes technical approach called phenomenology, I think, can be easily felt in how we deal with God as each of us takes God to be good, kind, and so on, and whether that is really how God is. This relationship between reality and appearance is also a form of the general modern problem where appearance eclipses reality. What things seem to be is all we can have, never what they are. That is, we have learned so much of how human culture, the mind, our bodies, and our histories actively shape the world around us when we perceive it that many of us are reluctant to say that what we perceive is in fact what things are. And rightly so! So much the more with God because we are willing to say that “God is thus-and-so to me” and refuse to say that whatever “God is to me” is how God is. There’s more than just the triumph of appearance over reality, I think, especially when dealing with religious matters in the West because we are trained to hedge our bets on the way things are owing to our history of religious conflict and the privatization of religion. These are good habits so far as they go but they are also habits that can keep us from holding that appearances might have something to do with what we think is appearing!
Phenomenology can help with this. It’s not the only aid that can be found, but it goes pretty far because phenomenology started when Edmund Husserl developed and renewed some traditions with the slogan “to the things themselves!” and “so much reduction, so much givenness.”
5) I understand you collect action figures. Can you talk about actions figures in terms of gift, theology, and promise?
Other blogs on the blog tour:
In a future post, I will respond to Greg's question for me: "What, if anything in the book is fruitful or demands a certain way of acting as a congregation or as a missional, evangelical pastor?"