The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Chapters 1-2)

Kotsko opens up his work by stating that theology requires some ontological reflection. His thesis is that the major theologians, who have made important contributions to atonement theory, have all implicitly shared a social-relational ontology. Kotsko discloses to his reader that he has chosen the doctrine of atonement because of the degree of criticism traditional doctrines of atonement have received from liberation theologians. He is sympathetic with their critiques and hopes that this work will be useful in offering “unexpected resources for transformation” (3). For Christ’s saving work to impact all of humanity, there must be an interrelatedness of all mankind, otherwise it would be impossible for “an agent at a particular nodal point to have cascading effects” (5).

Next, Kotsko offers a very clear reading of Bonhoeffer’s obscure writings on the possibility of a religionless Christianity in Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer’s musing about religionless Christianity was a hope to see Christianity divorce itself from individualism (the drama between the soul and God) and metaphysics. This conviction leads him to reject Bultmann who evacuates God from religion, and Barth who is guilty of evacuating the individual from religion. To properly communicate the heart of the gospel, religion must be entirely abandoned because it still maintains God’s omnipotence. Instead, a religionless Christianity will embrace a weak and suffering God. Kotsko argues that Bonhoeffer’s first dissertation on community hopes to “steer between the same poles he rejects in his later critiques of Bultmann and Barth: individualism and authoritarianism” (14). For Bonhoeffer, the Trinity serves as a model for communal relations where different Christians through the Holy Spirit assemble together “in real relations among themselves, rather than simply gathering a cluster of individuals” (15).

Similar to Bonhoeffer’s rejection of individuals and authoritarianism, Nancy rejects liberalism and totalitarianism because both share “the metaphysics of the absolute for-itself – be it in the form of the individual or the total State” (16). In fact, absoluteness is a symptom of a refusal to acknowledge humanity’s relationality. Kotsko insists that we are not to understand Nancy’s emphasis on relationality as nostalgia for the past, but simply a fact of life that “we simply are always-already in community, always-already in relationships” (17). Nancy praises Heidegger for stressing the importance of “being-with” but Nancy is critical of his analysis of the lone Heideggerian subject, which backs away from Heidegger’s original more relational insights. From Nancy’s perspective, the singular is always-already plural. In fact, the one always hints at a more than one. However, the singular maintains its singularity by being in concrete relations, or by being-with others.

Kotsko wants to ground the doctrine of atonement in a social-relational ontology. He hopes to avoid individualism that subordinates the importance of all other relationships to God. Hence, when one’s relationship to God is prioritized over all other relationships, then we are still under to domain of individualism. Kotsko recognizes that two dominant atonement traditions (Anselm and Abelard) have primarily been interpreted from an individualistic framework. Believing that both theories ultimately fail because they make the incarnation arbitrary, Kotsko hopes that his social-relational account of the atonement will “provide a plausible and convincing account of why God became human” (25).

In chapter 2, Kotsko reviews feminists and womanists’ critiques of atonement. The major critique from these theologians is that “redemptive suffering, obedience, and surrogacy – converge on one point: the devaluation of human agency” (29). Although some feminist theologians, like Delores Williams, want to abandon theological reflection of the cross, other feminist theologians interpret Jesus’ death as part of his ministry to love others and inaugurate the Kingdom. However, all feminists forsake the idea that the goal of Jesus’ ministry was to die.

Next Kotsko reviews the work of some “critical theologians” on the doctrine of atonement including Cone, Joh, and Taylor. I want to focus briefly on the theology of James Cone. Kotsko argues that the difference between the black and white mindset (according to Cone) parallels the difference between social-relational thought and individualism. Given that blacks experience oppression daily, they have an epistemological advantage to critique oppression since they are “forced to be aware of oppressive social structures” (36) while whites can conveniently ignore their own complicity in opposition. Hence, we ought to listen to these oppressed individuals because they are in a better position to critique structures of oppression.

In this last section, I want to briefly discuss redemptive suffering. While liberation theologians would praise Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on community, they would be somewhat suspect of Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on redemptive suffering. Kotsko worries that Bonhoeffer’s theology does not have the resources to “affirm agency to the same extent as feminist and womanist theologians can” (43). The ultimate goal is to demonstrate the redemptive suffering is incompatible with a social-relational ontology. Kotsko is critical of this idea because it repeats the logic of individualism by simply extolling suffering for the sake of it, without properly contextualizing suffering in its relational matrix. Also, the only rationale given for such a valorization of suffering is because God values it, not that the option is appealing in and of itself. Next Kotsko’s reviews Moltmann’s theology because he carries on the legacy of Bonhoeffer and his work and is also accountable to liberation theologians. Moltmann’s two works The Crucified God and The Way of Jesus Christ are exemplary because of the shift from an individualistic to a relational form of thought. In The Crucified God, Moltmann abstracts the cross from the life of Jesus placing it into the inner life of God. He fails to pay particular respect to the social circumstances that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Moltmann’s major sin is separating the cross from Jesus’ life. Receiving criticism from many including Boff, Moltmann argues for a thoroughly relational and Trinitarian Christology in The Way of Jesus Christ, which is a vast improvement. Kotsko notes that “relationality begets relationality” (51). If the later Moltmann might represent the Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers from Prison, perhaps Bonhoeffer valorizes suffering simply as a specific political strategy not as an eternal rule. However the rejection of redemptive suffering is not unique to liberation theology, but a natural outcome of social-relational thought. He closes the chapter with this remark,  “social-relational thinking goes hand in hand with the question to get behind an individualistic and ideological theology – that is, one that obscures social reality and thus helps the perpetuate the status quo – and to discover in the gospel message a challenging, critical word” (52).

Comments: On a personal note, yesterday I taught Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity in Sunday school at my mainline church. The class seemed to take quite nicely to his critique of Barth and Bonhoeffer’s idea of a suffering God. However, most were quite uncomfortable with the idea of abandoning piety and a personal relationship with God. I think Bonhoeffer’s critique is Lutheran in character because he worries that this turn inward is a false start. Luther continued to emphasize that Christ is found on the cross not inside the heart of the individual believer. If Bonoheffer’s ultimate aim is to promote a Christianity that is solely focused on living in this world, then we have to come to terms with the fact that inwardness is an obstacle to being in communion with one another. It breeds narcissism and self-righteousness. Encountering God on the cross requires that the body of Christ tear down the crosses society has erected to serve the disenfranchised. God can only be found in the midst of suffering because God in Christ has let Godself be pushed out of the world onto the cross.

22 thoughts on “The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Chapters 1-2)

  1. I think these couple chapters are really important to get nailed in order to understand the rest of the book: it’s not always clear exactly what the nature of this relational model is, and this is partly because Adam is so consistently concerned with doing justice to the authors he treats. The exegetical ambition of the book is – in that sense – dazzling.

    The summary on page 23 was useful, essentially claiming that substance is a function of relation. We know what particulars are through understanding their relations (what they are related to and how they are related).

    That said, I have an exegetical glitch regarding Bonhoeffer. The claim is made that Bonhoeffer’s boldness in the face of the death of Christianity (not just the death of God) is based on his social-relational model. Now the key to a great deal of Bonhoeffer’s work is no doubt to be found in his doctoral dissertation Sanctorum Communio and in Life Together, but I really want to know more about how all the Bonhoefferian problems (particularly from the letters) are solved with this reference: how does this concretely differ from private religion, existentialism, psycho analysis, etc? How does this help us reconfigure transcendence through the lens of Jesus’ being-there-for-others?

    In short, I can see how a lot of questions could be answered here, but they aren’t.

  2. Would it not be more appropriate to move away from a critique of inwardness ‘as-such’ (which is implicitly rejected anyway in this model) which is what you state at the end towards a more appropriate relational model of self (which is what gets addressed earlier in the post) which includes inwardness? Why the outright rejection (again unless the assumption is that the rejection is inwardness ‘as-such’? Inwardness may be a false start but could that not be because there is no ‘start’ only a certain relational movement that must be entered into which includes movements ‘within’? I don’t know the biographical details of Bonhoeffer’s time in prison but I can’t help but imagine it offered a sort of inwardness that contributed to the overall logic it produced.
    I am not sure how much of the end is an extension of your understanding of Bonhoeffer and how much is your own development (or Kotsko for that matter)?

  3. Just to make it clear: Bonhoeffer’s accusation of religion in the letters was that it hadn’t come to terms with God’s disappearance from the world (and I’m glad Adam pointed out the Nietzsche references – I think the letters are riddled with them) and that religion has been pushed into the private sphere. It has become a kind of navel-gazing, conscience ransacking, guiltridden internal thing.

    Adam’s problem is: granted these criticisms, how are they contributions to theology? Bonhoeffer wants to read the Bible with these insights, whereas most would see them as reasons to abandon it. So why religionless Christianity rather than religionlessness? And Adam says the answer’s in the social relations model.

    My point was that this is a suggested answer to a really big question, and lots of questions come to a head in this one, so the answer needs to be applied to them too. For example, the way God is pushed out is an historical development, but the communities Bonhoeffer writes about are historical entities. So how do these histories interact?

    What my students agonised over when I taught Bonhoeffer was: is he still a theist? So I want to know whether this is an answer to both accusations or just the one.

  4. Bonhoeffer considers in the letters that individual salvation was not only an obstacle to this-worldliness but also unbiblical. The obvious problem is that most Christians consider the community a nice add-on but ultimately dispensable. Bonhoeffer is trying to turn that assumption on its head. For Bonhoeffer, pious inwardness is simply not the place where we encounter God in this world.

  5. David, I’m not saying that one doesn’t or shouldn’t have an inner life (or a relationship with oneself) — I’m saying that it shouldn’t be construed as the privileged arena of Christianity.

    Andy, I wouldn’t claim to be solving all the Bonhoefferian problems, but I would stand by my claim that the reason Bonhoeffer can hold onto Christianity is because of the distinctive form of community he finds there — that community, in its constitutive relationship of responsibility for this world, is where religionless Christianity is to be found. As for whether he’s a theist, my reading of his trajectory in the prison letters is that he would probably end up in a position similar to Soelle’s in Christ the Representative.

  6. Now that I’m looking over the thread some more, I see I left a big chunk out in my response to Andy — namely, the relationship between community and the withdrawal of God from the world. This may sound overly simplistic, but I think that for Bonhoeffer, the fundamentally communal nature of Christianity was “there from the beginning” (hence in the Bible, too, if you read religionlessly) and that religion, while perhaps a necessary apparatus for a certain historical period/problem, ultimately wound up obscuring that. Hence the advent of modernity, with the accompanying withdrawal of God, actually represents Christianity’s great opportunity.

  7. I don’t have time to contribute much right now, but I noticed that “Discipleship” was not in the bibliography for “The Politics of Redemption.” Readers should take a look at the chapter “The Body of Christ” for Bonhoeffer’s relational atonement theory. The chapter “Discipleship and the Cross” is important for the question of redemptive suffering. Bonhoeffer states that suffering is “distance from God” (p.90 DBW v.4). If we accept that definition of suffering, Christ’s suffering may very well be necessary for atonement. Of course suffering is then transformed through Christs death. The “suffering” of the disciple becomes baptism into the Body of Christ.

  8. I can see how the community aspect was there from the beginning (because Christ is the exemplar of the new model of transcendence as community): I think I too soon read your remarks on community as references to the church. His remarks on God being pushed out of the world coincided with his challenge to Christians to engage in other aspects of the world – politics, arts, etc – as well.

    Is this great opportunity the chance for Christian community to become truly universal? As a style of being together rather than an historically constituted group of people being together? If so, then the challenge to describe precisely this kind of relationship will rocket.

    I think Ben B’s comment would apply more clearly as a way in which Bonhoeffer already stood in the patristic tradition of atonement (in chapter 4 and 5). It is notoriously difficult to connect his later ideas (in the letters) to his earlier work (Discipleship etc.). He doesn’t recant as such, but he does describe Discipleship as a dangerous book in the letters.

    One way in which I think the book might be improved is to build up further and more obvious links in the historical interpretations to the opening chapters so the relational understanding snowballs.

  9. Yes, the great opportunity is to become truly universal. Some kind of particular community is necessary as an “avant garde” (as I try to show in the last couple chapters), but the goal of the particular Christian community should be its own obselescence.

  10. Given the love of evangelicals for Discipleship, I’m inclined to agree with Bonhoeffer’s assessment.

    Improvements are probably not possible given that it’s published, but for the sake of future work — do you mean more explicit cross-references to specific ideas from the opening chapters?

  11. I think one of the professors in my department in oslo has tried to wrest Discipleship from the hands of the evangelicals. Not read it but I’ll ask some time if there’s anything he’s written on it in English.

    Yes, that’s exactly what I mean about the references. It wasn’t always easy to see that this was what you meant when you established your framework. There’s a lot more careful build up than meets the eye.

  12. Point taken — and it confirms a broader trend, too, as people I consult with while drafting my work tend to ask for more “pointers.” I wonder if this is a level where my famed “clarity” works against me, because the seemingly easy writing style leads people to expect everything to be immediately on the surface. (I sometimes suspect this when I see reviews where someone praises my transcendent clarity and then proceeds to brutally misunderstand my argument.)

  13. Adam- Sorry, I meant no disrespect. I have been looking over “Discipleship” because my evangelical father-in-law is reading the Metaxas biography, and I want to be ready for the conversation that he will want to have. I really enjoy your work and feel that I have a better understanding of Bonhoeffer because of what I have read in “The Politics of Redemption.” I simply wanted to draw readers’ attention to a part of “Discipleship” where Bonhoeffer is constructing a social-relational model of atonement.

    The second part of my vague comment was in reference to chapter 2 of your book and the role of redemptive suffering in atonement theory. Bonhoeffer insists on the need for Christ’s suffering in “Discipleship,” as well as the Christ-suffering of disciples. The definition of suffering as distance from God reminded of the final paragraph of (I believe) chapter 4 of “The Puppet and the Dwarf.” On the cross, Jesus is experiencing absolute distance from God.

    This suffering of Jesus transforms the suffering of the Body of Christ. Disciples experience distance from God in relationship with the Body of Christ. God really is dead and the community is what remains. However, this “suffering” is not the agony of the cross or loneliness of Gethsemane. Christ-suffering for disciples is living in community, not as an individual.

    These ideas are still chaotic in my own mind, and I just began reading Zizek, so this might be a pretty poor reading of both Zizek and Bonhoeffer. The issues I am left with are: 1. I am not sure if I am ready to abandon redemptive suffering. 2. I am not sure if this reading of Bonhoeffer can avoid the same critique of early Moltmann.

  14. I didn’t intend to imply you were disrespectful — I just didn’t know where you were coming from and thus how to respond appropriately. This response helps.

    The reading of suffering as distance from God and what you do with it in your second paragraph is interesting, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Christ’s suffering-as-distance-from-God also takes place in one of the worst imaginable cases of suffering-commonly-so-called. I’m also not sure whether your account of Christ-suffering as living in community rather than as an individual — which I’m initially sympathetic to — would really stand up to the feminist critique of the atonement tradition.

    As for whether your reading of Bonhoeffer avoids the critique levelled at early Moltmann, I don’t think it does and I also don’t think it’s surprising that it doesn’t — my whole point is that Bonhoeffer’s embrace of redemptive suffering seems contradictory with the direction he’s headed in the letters, so it makes sense that an even earlier writing would be problematic in that regard as well. I’m much more interested in the direction Bonhoeffer was heading toward the end of his life than in any positive statement or opinion of Bonhoeffer as such. He’s less an authority for me than an inspiration, I suppose.

    As for not being willing to give up redemptive suffering, I understand that giving it up is a pretty radical proposal and that it’s not likely a single book will make the case definitively. After studying feminist theology, however, I can no longer take redemptive suffering seriously as a good or helpful option.

  15. Actually the idea Ben B mentions of Christians having to suffer again Christ’s distance from God would make the necessity of modernity’s pushing God out of the world entirely natural. The son of God really and truly experienced the world etsi Deus non daretur.

  16. Thanks, Andy, I was trying to get there…

    I have had some more time to think about this and wanted to add the following thoughts.

    To borrow Bonhoeffer’s critique of Bultmann, Moltmann’s problem isn’t that he went too far, but that he did not go far enough. Moltmann argues that the Father suffers the loss of his Son, even the loss of his own fatherhood, but he is not willing to the next step. The cross is actually the crucifixion of the triune God, not just the Son. Adam, as you write, “insofar as a being only exists as a singularity determined by relationship, removing it from one of its constitutive relationships means destroying an aspect of what it is” (193). The death of Christ is the death of the Spirit, as the community is scattered in fear and the relationship between Father and Son is broken. With the Son and Spirit crucified, the only constitutive relationship that the Father could have is with humanity, which is impossible if they have turned from him. It appears that the devil has succeeded, and that the wager Adam suggests has been lost.

    On this Holy Saturday, I will have to stop with that and work on the Easter bulletin.

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