The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Chapters 8-9)

The penultimate chapter in The Politics of Redemption, “Community and Related Questions,” begins by reminding the reader of the social-relational logic that pervades patristic theories of atonement and the trajectory that theories of atonement take  from a social-relational logic to a more individualistic one. Kotsko has already begun to demonstrate “the continuing relevance of recaptiulatory theories in modernity” but goes a step further in this chapter, beginning to sketch a contemporary atonement theory. Before that move occurs (which is the topic of the final chapter), Kotsko turns to Karl Barth and Dorothee Soelle to gesture to the centrality of community and relationality for a theory of atonement.

Kotsko points to a sort of irony that is present in this need to explore these questions, in light of the social-relational logic pervading the history of theorizing atonement. As he points out, in none of the theologians he examines is there any “explicitly argument that the emergence of a historically particular community follows from the Incarnation” (174). Suggesting that this absence of a derivation of the church as a particular community in theories of atonement stems from a post-Constantinian picture of the church, Kotsko turns to Barth and Soelle, whose contexts do not render the church as a historical fact. Despite their differences, Kotsko finds Barth and Soelle useful, as both suggest that “though the object of Christ’s work is ultimately humanity as such, that work initially and necessarily takes the form of a historically specific community” (175).

Kotsko begins with Barth, laying out his problem with a traditional logic of atonement where there is “a gap between the God revealed in Christ and the God who mysteriously decreed double predestination,” in that “it makes God’s revelation a revelation of something other than God, and therefore renders that revelation untrustworthy” (176). Alternately, Barth sees divine election as centered in Christ, where “God is none other than the One who in his Son or Word elects himself, and in and with himself elects his people” (177, citing CD II/2, 76). The people that proceed from this election are Israel and the church, respectively. Important to Kotsko’s analysis is Barth’s reference to humanity as a singular object—the community of those faithful to Jesus Christ is the propagation of Christ’s work, it’s continued reality in the world. Just as the problem facing humanity… was propagated through an unfolding history, so also is its solution in Christ. “That solution enters into a situation in which the problem is universal and pushes back with the assurance that the solution’s scope will ultimately be universal as well.” (179).  It’s from this point that Kotsko begins to break with Barth, suggesting that Barth has a “persistent unilateralism that arguably undermines the importance of the community, making it seem like the arbitrary means Barth accused the previous theologians of making Christ” and questioning whether “any doctrine of predestination can do justice to human freedom, can make freedom count” (179, 180).

From this point, Kotsko turns to Dorothee Soelle. Soelle, Kotsko argues, has a different take than Barth, writing from a context where “the death of God” has already occurred and thus fending off some of the problems Barth faces. Soelle, particularly in her book Christ the Representative, starts from this point and suggests that it does not render Christ irrelevant but rather “forces us to seeks a new and more accurate description of the identity established in Christ” (181, citing Christ the Representative, 12). Identity, Kotsko explains, has been simultaneously meant to denote an irreplaceability and a task, and “the apparent opposites of a total substitutability and an absolute irreplaceability that carries no eternal consequences reveal themselves to be dialectically identical” (181). Soelle offers a way out through the concept of representation—“in a situation in which we are incapable of achieving identity ourselves, Christ’s role is to buy us the time necessary to achieve our own identity” (182). Christ provisionally represents us before God. This means that we represent others before God, and that, “we must, like Christ, represent God, so that God too can find identity” (183).

Kotsko then ends chapter 8 by briefly addressing the difference between a religionless and demythologizing interpretation. The religionless interpreter, as opposed to the demythologizing one that cuts out the offending elements from the text, “leaves the mythological elements in place, interpreting the text as a whole from a religionless perspective” (184). Kotsko explains that a religionless interpretation is what he will undertake in the final chapter, and cites his earlier examples of reading the devil as a representation of some form of political power.

In the final chapter of his book, aptly titled “the Politics of Redemption,” Kotsko begins to sketch out the atonement theory he proposes, beginning with laying out/expanding upon an ontology of “being-with”—that “to exist is necessarily to be in relation” (188). A similar claim flows from this logic—“to exist is to have a discernible effect” (189). Humanity’s existence, our relationality, actually does something. Here, Kotsko addresses the reality that not only do we have an effect on others, but that others have an effect on us, and, more broadly, we are shaped to some degree by the world we live in. Kotsko makes this move by discussing the relation between the soul and the spiritual world, the term spiritual used in a Hegelian way referring to the “spirit” of the times, including religion as well as culture, language, etc… The spiritual points to the fact, in short, that social life somehow seems to have “a life of its own”” (190). Kotsko uses structural and post-structural thinkers, amongst other examples, to further ground his point that “the spiritual names the fact that humanity continually determines the form of its life together while being determined by it” (192).

Preceding from this point that being is constituted by relationship, Kotsko hones in on the possibility of destructive relationships and actions, the latter being “when it attempts to isolate its object,” the former being marked by that action (193). Positive change in relationships is marked by enjoyment, whereas destructive action is, in contrast, possessive. God, for Kotsko then, “names the purpose of the world, which is nothing other than that the world might be an ever-proliferating network of relationships characterized by enjoyment” (193). Humanity, it logically follows, “is that point at which it is determined whether or not the world is to fulfill the divine purpose” (193).

Kotsko then moves to the problem, offering a religionless account of the fall—initially, humanity is in “a situation characterized by free enjoyment—of the non-human world and of one another,” but then “chose a path contrary” to that divine purpose (194). At the heart of the abandonment of the initial state of enjoyment is possession. Kotsko explains here how a religionless reading of the devil is helpful, in interpreting the actions of the devil as “a kind of stand-in for the spiritual (cultural and political) sphere,” reading the patristic account of the jealousy of the devil as precisely this attempt at possession (195). This relationship of possession attempts to cut humanity off from all other relationships. One way to interpret the devil here, Kotsko suggests, is “as a kind of inherent possibility of freedom, which humanity in fact actualizes” (196). I was initially a bit confused by this point—is the devil interpreted as the possibility of freedom or as the possibility of freedom thwarted through this attempt at possession? But Kotsko quickly clarifies. The clarification strikes me as vital to this theory, so I will cite it at length:

If the logic of possession…were not a live option, then God’s hope for an ever-proliferating network of relationships would be undercut in one crucial point—for all the flourishing intraworldly relationships, the world would not be in true relationship with God. Viewing God as a straightforward agent, by eliminating the possibility of negating relationship, God would be negating God’s own relationship to the world and therefore Godself (196).

Within this paradigm, the freedom of human action, even its potential to move towards destruction, marked by possession, is necessary. This possibility both produces and is produced by fear—“fear becomes a motivation for further negation of relationship,” Kotsko writes, “Instead of occasions for enjoyment, others (human or otherwise) become threats” (196). This fear is what Kotsko classifies as han, which he discussed in greater depth in the earlier chapter on Abelard. This fear builds on itself; it metastasizes, as Kotsko puts it, and results in “a condition of socially propagated social alienation, a social order that paradoxically binds us together by keeping us apart” (197).

The way out of this fear, then—this fear that stems from the necessary agency and relationality of humanity—is “a persuasive fearlessness.” This, for Kotsko, is what Christ opens up the possibility for—“Incarnation reflects the fact that relationality cannot be eradicated, only corrupted—the potential of humanity to fulfill the divine purpose endures” (198).  “Christ,” he continues, “carries with him an authority that transcends the dialectic of han and sin” (199). Here, Kotsko focuses on how this plays out in the actions of Christ, who doesn’t repeat the logic of possession by trying to control those he encounters,” but rather demonstrates a “simple willingness to be with people whom others shun or simply ignore”—he rejects fear and demonstrates enjoyment of the other, of relationship (200). Christ’s crucifixion, his willful acceptance of it and his refusal to respond in fear, demonstrates a rejection of the fear the act of crucifixion tries to instill. In his refusal to fight back, Christ “refuses the entire dialectic” (201).

What actually happens to convince the disciples that Jesus overcomes the bond of death (read: whether the resurrection actually happened) is less important to Kotsko than what it produces in the disciples and subsequent followers of Christ. “Instead of reinforcing the reign of fear,” he explains, “this crucifixion somehow inspired a new fearlessness, one that operates entirely outside the dialectic of fear and domination” (202). New forms of sociality emerge. Christ’s refusal of the dialectic allows his followers to do likewise, transforming the shape of social life. The follower of Christ sees, and lives into, relationship as free enjoyment rather than a possession that stems from and reproduces fear.

Kotsko ends by coming back to what he names as the “contradiction between human free will and divine predestination” and offers a way to read divine predestination in its universalist form through this lens of atonement. On the one hand, he wants to read universality as a guideline for our actions in the world, as opposed to a kind of regulative ideal (which does not fit within the framework of a religionless interpretation), and on the other hand, he wants to point to the possibility, invoking Benjamin, that “present redemptive action actually retroactively changes the meaning of the past” (205). Putting these two possibilities together, Kotsko suggests that the universalism that stems from the Incarnation means making sure “no one is forgotten and no embers of hope in the past are overlooked” (205).

The text ends with Kotsko summing up the claim at the center of his text and of his sketch of atonement—“that the same ontological structure that allows the problem facing humanity to arise and endure is also what allows Christ’s intervention to be effective” (206). The atoning work of Christ is what opens up and outlines the possibility that humanity, in our relationality—by adopting an attitude/orientation of persuasive fearlessness—can achieve “the divine purpose of a world characterized by free enjoyment” (206).

Questions, comments, etc…

I deeply appreciate Kotsko’s offering of a theory of atonement that takes seriously the reality of human relationships and the subsequent responsibility that stems from that relationality. I think that his assessment of the problematic trend towards individualism in atonement theories is especially helpful, and I appreciate the move, then, to ground atonement within a social relational ontology.  I think Kotsko’s recognition of possession and rule as the problem is right on, and I appreciate how he draws attention to the social, structural account of sin in light of the historical and contemporary tendency to individualize sin and relationship with God, etc…

There were a few points made in The Politics of Redemption that I found particularly helpful, that I want to highlight :

  • Kotsko, at one point, reads the actions of Christ in light of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic. He writes that, in his refusal to either submit or fight back when faced with his own crucifixion, Christ “refuses the entire dialectic” (201). I loved this point, and found it to be a very useful way of reading Christ’s actions, how this then moves into an opening up of new forms of sociality, etc… one thing I did wonder about here, or wish Kotsko would have addressed more, is the particularity of Christ’s life and how that might add to the force of this refusal. In chapter 8, Kotsko critiques Barth’s “divine unilateralism” noting that “God is pictured along the lines of a master-slave relationship, with God claiming all human work as God’s own work—until ultimately humanity, like Hegel’s slave, moves along, leaving God behind” (180). I wonder if the point that Christ refused the dialectic can be understood in light of the transcendence of God? Can Christ as fully-God and fully-man be part of the refusal of this dialectic as opposed to the outworking of it? What does it mean that Christ took on the form of the slave? More questions on this part below…
  • Kotsko’s point that “not every group or institution putting itself forward as a church is actually part of the avant-garde movement of Christ in the world…. [but that] some are actively working against the movement” is, I think, an absolutely vital point (203). I think this is an enormous contribution of Kotsko’s theory, in that it holds individuals and groups accountable, interpreting and judging their actions through the “likeness of effect” and thus undermining “any kind of Christian triumphalism, which would make adherents of a certain doctrine, liturgical system, or institutional structure the automatic bearers of Christ’s mission in the world” (203).  The question becomes, however, how do we interpret effect? What makes us able to claim an effect as positive/life-giving or oppressive? While some of this seems commonsensical, we’ve all seen how people have different determinations of what is life giving, and this evaluation can certainly get deployed towards malicious ends…
  • Just as I agree with the assessment of possession and rule as the problem, I follow Kotsko’s claim that a solution can be found in “a persuasive fearlessness” (199). While I might have questions about what enables that fearlessness or whether it should be mediated by something or, rather, someone, I think this constructive move is powerful and an important rejoinder to assess and compel our action in the world.

In short, I find much of what Kotsko says helpful. But, as is already likely somewhat evident in my highlights, I found myself stuck at various points, with not necessarily grasping with the need to eschew transcendence or a “religious” interpretation to make those claims, but finding transcendence as helpful to the claims Kotsko ends with, to the effects Kotsko desires.

Before I continue, I want to note that I recognize my concerns reflect a certain “old debate” that has addressed here at this blog frequently (such as here, here, and here) and elsewhere. Knowledge of this “debate” and its, um, heatedness, has resulted in a sort of writer’s block for me regarding participation in this book event, as well as a fairly high degree of reticence in terms of determining what to write/how to engage.  Nevertheless, I still wanted to raise some questions, as I think they reflect a desire, to invoke a trite cliché, to “have my cake and eat it too”—to conceive of, on the one hand, the atoning work of Christ as opening up the spaces for “new forms of sociality” that inspire “a new fearlessness, one that operates entirely outside of the dialectic of fear and domination, or han and sin,” while still maintaining what I find helpful/important about transcendence (202). I look forward to what readers of this post might offer in response to my undoubtedly rough sketch of what I find useful or necessary about transcendence in a way that still compels human action.

Part of what raises questions for me is Bonhoeffer, who Kotsko evokes at numerous points throughout the text. At the beginning of this text, Kotsko writes that for Bonhoeffer, “it is necessary to get rid of one of the central assumptions of “religion,” namely God’s omnipotence” (12), and goes on to read Bonhoeffer’s naming of religionless Christianity as a Christianity that, in effect, eschews metaphysics altogether. This claim seems incommensurable with previous texts Bonhoeffer has written, and I would actually name what Bonhoeffer is trying to do here as something different.

In many points throughout his writings, Bonhoeffer seemed to reject a notion of direct immanence between individuals and offer the transcendence of Christ as a necessary move, the needed mediator. Two texts come to mind immediately—Discipleship and his 1933 Christology lectures. In the latter, Bonhoeffer explores the problem of mediation, noting our attempts to knowledge as attempts to classify and control. Christ operates then as the Counter-Logos, the figure who disrupts and destroys these attempts at classification, to whom we cannot ask how, but only ask “who.” In the former, Bonhoeffer is explicit about the concerns of a direct immediacy between humanity, even within the individual herself. “Since Christ,” Bonhoeffer writes, “there has been no more unmediated relationship for the human person, neither to God nor to the world. Christ intends to be the mediator” (94). Bonhoeffer situates this need for mediation in concerns for the possible destructiveness of human action but also in the need for human action, which, for him, seems to be most possible through the mediating work of Christ. Bonhoeffer here writes at length on how the break with immediacy does not mean a break where “one loosens his or her ties to the world for the sake of some ideal” but that such a break actually opens up the possibility for action apart from a particular set of ideals that can be distorted (94). For Bonhoeffer, interestingly, immediacy is associated with analogy—“because any delusion which hides truth from us must be hated, immediacy to the natural given things in life must also be hated, for the sake of Jesus Christ, the mediator” (95). That our existence is understood in relationship is crucial for Bonhoeffer, but those relationships, to avoid domination and possession, must come through Christ, “the illusion is immediacy,” he writes, and “the way to one’s neighbor leads only through Christ” (94, 96).

A question that Kotsko asks at one point during one of these “debates,” and a question that is addressed at different points throughout the text is whether human self-affirmation or autonomy is really the problem. For Bonhoeffer, that answer seems to, at least in part, be yes. Perhaps another way of naming it is that the problem is not self-affirmation itself, but the way that self-affirmation can claim a direct path of knowledge and then be used for corrupt ends—that a “direct” knowledge becomes a powerful tool for domination. This seems especially salient when one takes into consideration the context in which Bonhoeffer offered these lectures—at the University of Berlin or Finkewalde, respectively, during the ascendancy and reign of the Third Reich. Could Bonhoeffer be naming the will to power embodied in the Aryan masculine that marked Nazi Germany? Could Christ’s transcendence operate for Bonhoeffer as a counter to that will?

I would also argue that this fits with a Foucauldian analysis of power/knowledge. At one point at the beginning of chapter 9, Kotsko points out that “humanity continually determines the form of its life together while being determined by it,” yet he doesn’t seem to offer much detail about what it means that we are determined by our life together, and what that might possibly mean for even how we conceive of determining what is good (192). I think this question of mediation is also interesting in light of Kotsko’s point that the problem at hand is possession and rule. I agree wholeheartedly with the assessment that possession is the problem, but I wonder if a certain logic of immanence also lends itself to this problem? Bonhoeffer seems to connect the desire of rule or possession with a disavowal of transcendence, with the attempt to assimilate. Christ operates as the one who refuses that attempt. And for Bonhoeffer, this does not seem to be just an example we follow, but something that Christ does for us—at numerous points in the Christology lectures, Bonhoeffer remarks that  “I am met in [Christ’s] work as one who cannot possibly do the work he does” (38).

I wondered at various points if Kotsko would just narrate this concern Bonhoeffer brings up with a slightly different valence—that immanence is that which allows us to see the other and thus impedes on our desire for domination (or something similar)… and I wonder if a sole focus on immanence doesn’t take our own capacity for evil (which one could narrate as sin or fallenness) into account. Does this necessarily have to be solely individualistic, or can, one understand humanity as relationally constituted while still holding to a divine transcendence? Bonhoeffer seems to suggest that transcendence is necessary for an understanding of human relationality that doesn’t lead to domination or possession. In Creation and Fall he spends a great deal of time talking about what it means to act from a place of creaturely existence, from “the middle,” and perhaps more significantly/overtly, Bonhoeffer seems to situate the importance of human action in light of transcendence in Ethics, particularly in his manuscript Christ, History and Good. I’ve already made this blog post way too long, and I didn’t intend to turn this book review into a discussion of Bonhoeffer’s corpus, I will just briefly say that, here, Bonhoeffer seems to be able to situate responsibility in light of transcendence—responsibility becomes the context of agency. We become mediators inside of Christ’s mediation—risking ourselves to act for others and to free others to human action. Bonhoeffer names this as a “selfless self-assertion… that is a surrender of myself to God and to other human beings” (254). Our live is always verantwortung— a responsibility, but one that stems from our creatureliness, a limitedness that actually frees us to act, knowing we are not ultimately the ones who do the work, but are called to participate in the work Christ does.

In short, I want to say that we do need something outside of ourselves, and that this outside-ness does not necessitate an apathy or inaction, but is precisely that which empowers us to act. I found The Politics of Redemption enormously helpful in narrating the problem of possession and domination, of situating that problem structurally, and of offering a potential ethics, a response to that problem through persuasive fearlessness. I simply wonder, following Bonhoeffer, if just as a rejection of immanence might lead to a political apathy and/or a very problematic Christian triumphalism, if a rejection of transcendence lends itself to a further recapitulation of the problem, through not taking the ways that our actions, even the best-intended ones, can become oppressive instead of life-giving. Could it be that the transcendence of Christ, the Counter-Logos, allows us to act in persuasive fearlessness, to take the risk of action while knowing that we always run the risk of, well, fucking things up? Could transcendence offer the possibility that, because we are not the ones who render the verdict, we can participate in Christ’s work in the world and live as creatures, risking action and decision, always with an aim towards affirming life and the full flourishing of it?

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Chapters 8-9)

  1. Brandy, Thanks for this — your summary really captures what I’m trying to do in these two chapters as well as the book as a whole, and I’m glad to see you found it compelling, at least in part. I need to let this post stew in my brain a bit before responding and am also going out of town this weekend, but even if I don’t give a detailed response in comments, I promise I’ll do so in my final response to the event as a whole (and I promise it won’t be heated or harsh or whatever…).

  2. One point that I can at least begin to address, however, is the question of my interpretation of Bonhoeffer, which you, Andy, and Jay Carter have all objected to — and specifically, all three of you have said that I’m not taking account of all of Bonhoeffer’s corpus. And fair enough: I’m not.

    I also recognize that I’m opening myself up to that objection by drawing on both the prison letters and the early stuff — though to be fair, one of my major publications is an article in which I make a claim for the continuity I find between those two, providing evidence from the middle works (it’s in the bibliography and I link to it from my CV here). That exegetical work isn’t spelled out in detail in Politics of Redemption because it isn’t a book about Bonhoeffer, but I have done that work and I will still stand behind my interpretation.

    More broadly, though, I think it’s less interesting to focus on Bonhoeffer and more interesting to focus on the idea I’m drawing from Bonhoeffer — which Brandy’s post here definitely does (and Carter’s does from a different angle). I’m not interested in Bonhoeffer because he’s Bonhoeffer, I’m interested in him because he had these ideas.

    So for me, the more compelling question isn’t whether Bonhoeffer supported transcendence, etc., but whether the ideas I’m working through would be more effective if I made reference to transcendence. The effectiveness of Bonhoeffer’s use of transcendence could certainly count as evidence in such a discussion, though, just as the effectiveness of Bonhoeffer’s use of the abject body of Christ could count as evidence in favor of the critique Carter is advancing — so maybe the distinction I’m drawing here isn’t that big a deal.

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