God, Death & the Abortion of Time

Some of us are born with morbid imaginations. My mom tells a story about me, at the age of three: I wanted to know where we go when we die. The question consumed me, and she let me wonder. I apparently asked every adult I met and was unsatisfied with all of the answers I heard (heaven, six feet under; the great standards) Then she read me Oscar Wilde’s story “The Selfish Giant” which ends (spoiler alert) when the selfish giant is spirited away [by a christlike child] to the garden of paradise. “That’s it,” I told her. “That’s where we go. Paradise.” Perhaps all I needed was some vegetation: the vision of a garden. Or perhaps all I needed was a poetic term: something that felt like candy, or fresh fruit, on the tongue.

Many years later I was passed through the mills of deconstruction, postmodern thought, continental philosophy, feminist critique. Paradise became – to me – a power play: the gleaming veneer over transcendence, just another evisceration of finitude. Philosophers hate death, Simone de Beauvoir argued, because it carries a kind of placental stench. To think death, to really think death, is to take in the stink, the funk, of mortality. Philosophers prefer the clean purity of the immortal, the infinite. And women, said Beauvoir, are blamed for death because it’s birth that gave us death, in the first place. Beauvoir’s words always felt very true to me, and and there was feminist inspiration in the long sojourn I made into creaturely life. In creatureliness I wanted to embrace a kind of pure mortality; to make peace with the body’s limits, to illuminate its vulnerabilities, to be in its suffering. Contemporary theory is a rich vineyard to pull from, if this is what you thirst for. But, lately, I’ve grown weary of death.

This is the fifth semester in a row that I’ve been teaching a class on death. Right now I call it “Being Mortal.” In five terms, the syllabus has undergone a significant shift. Once it was heavy with texts that encourage a focus on raw mortality, with subtle critiques of immortality (both the biological and the supernatural varieties). But increasingly it becomes riddled with visions of the sweet hereafter, in various flavors. I once believed that the most difficult intellectual task would be to challenge students to question a pious valorization of the afterlife, and to rend a new form of openness to the limits of mortality. But this, I discovered, was actually the easiest thing to do. It was also, quite frankly, the most boring. It slowly began to dawn on me that my students believed, deeply, in mortal decay. But their speculative imaginations were, more often than not, deadened by it. At most, they would weakly (albeit dogmatically) offer the vision of a soul that would somehow outlast this decay. But our conversations about strange places like heaven and hell get their fictive impulses churning. Death can really be a dead end.

Tonstad’s book is not only a book about the trinity but is also, as the title promises, a book about the transformation of finitude. It is a vision that refuses to subordinate us to the reality of death. Unlike the philosophers who (as Beauvoir believed) hate death, Tonstad doesn’t deal with death misogynistically . Instead, death (like other elements of the book) is inspected using the diagnostic tools of queer theory and radical feminism.

The problem of subordination is one of the central concerns Tonstad has about the trinity: the Son’s subordination to the Father, the Spirit’s subordination to the Son. When relations of finitude are read into these persons, these relations become gendered in a patriarchal and heterosexual manner. When subordination is gendered in the trinity, it often becomes a feminized form of submission. When subordination is eroticized, it is often rendered as a heterosexual form of desire. Theologians often make the case that this looks like subordination, but because it happens in the life of God, it is not true subordination. Tonstad places this qualification in doubt and instead suggests that theology, too often, embeds patterns of subordination so deeply within its discussion of the trinity that it even attempts to subordinate God to the limits of finitude.

Her critique of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s trinitarian thought is a good example of this. Balthasar argues for a form of self-giving between persons of the trinity that is more than just a kenosis but is described as a death—a “super death”, perhaps a kind of divinized death, that forms the basis for all instances of “the good death.” (38) This self-giving via death is self-giving as surrender and ultimate sacrifice. But, Tonstad argues, “relations between created beings do not and should not directly image the relation between God and creation” (47). Balthasar’s mistake here is that he makes death internal to the relation between persons of the trinity. Death becomes part of God’s reality—finitude and its limits are essentially imported into the life of God.

Tonstad sees Sarah Coakley reading the limits of finitude into, or onto, God in a manner that skirts the issue of death but brings the issue of subordination more clearly to the fore. Coakley reads the creature-creator relation as a form of dependent vulnerability. But, Tonstad argues, Coakley does not seem to recognize that the creature-creator distinction is not a binary difference. Binaries, writes Tonstad, “entail the definition of one term by the exclusion of the other” (107). The difference between creature and creator is not, itself, a created difference and is, perhaps, more like a connective difference. It is thus, for Tonstad, unlike any other form of dependence. It makes little sense, then, to say that a creature becomes vulnerable to the creator. Creatures and creator relate otherwise.

Tonstad is leaning heavily upon the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher in this critique. In a postlude to the book Tonstad calls Schleiermacher a “significant” but “subterranean” influence on the project. What Tonstad believes that Schleiermacher has preserved, as many modern theologians have failed to, is a “difference beyond difference” (287): the radical difference between God and creation. Schleiermacher speaks of the human dependence on God as absolute, but also notes that this form of dependence is unlike any created dependence. The creature-creator dependence is not like the dependence of infant upon mother, of lover upon lover, of subject upon sovereign, of body upon water, or planet upon sun. To liken these forms of dependence to the creature-creator dependence is to magnify relations of finitude and divinize them. And this looks, in turn, like an attempt to subject God to the limits of finitude.

While Tonstad’s book is doing many things, I believe that one of the most interesting things is its attempt to interrupt this importation of finitude into the theological. Tonstad argues, instead, for an apocalyptic temporality that “establishes the church as a site of an abortive relation to time” (19). [I just want to highlight, by the way, that brilliantly queer turn of phrase: the church’s hope-filled, abortive action in the world.] This, in essence, is the transformation of finitude. One of the principal constructive moves that Tonstad makes, in this direction, is the recovery of “the priority of the salvific assumption” (225). This requires a shift in emphasis: a muting of subordination in the trinity and a strengthened emphasis on glorification. The Son is not only subordinated, but also glorifies. And one of the things that this is means—in the figure of the Son who is resurrected—is the promise of a reality in which “death no longer has power” (238).

Death, here, is that which stands opposed to God—that which has no being at all (134). The aim of the trinity is to “give humans a share in the life of God” (238), to transform finitude via the infinite—to abort the temporality that would subject us to mere finitude. Tonstad does not read this as a transition from this world into another one but, instead, as an expression of the economic trinity, or communion made (partially) manifest. This fills Tonstad’s constructive vision with images of eucharistic, post-resurrection, “banquets without borders” (239): an eschatological feast.

In the midst of images of abundance, Tonstad also offers a caution:

…we should not treat the eucharist as a talisman or a theopolitical act that in mysterious fashion makes all this true of the lives we now live. We need to recognize the degree of brokenness that forms human existence, the truth of our existence between creation, fall, and consummation. To assert future or symbolic superabundance as a response to the world’s need is a spiritualizing ideology that renders Christianity vulnerable to Karl Marx’s classic designation of religion as the opiate of the people and the sigh of a heartless world—it risks what I term a dematerialized utopian idealism (244).

We are not yet, fully, under the sign of the resurrection. But, says Tonstad, the eucharist represents a form of possibility nonetheless—“an intensified materialization of the goodness of creation itself, in its own identity” (245). This is, in part, a sober form of caution. It signals that Tonstad is not advancing a triumphalist proclamation that the kingdom of God is always and already rendering the brokenness of this world illusory, passing, or irrelevant. While Tonstad does emphasize that trinitarian theologies too readily import suffering into the trinity itself, I don’t read this as a dismissal of trauma, or an erasure of contingency. Instead, I think, Tonstad is suggesting that theology’s response to the current critical-theoretical environment—which places an acknowledgement of suffering and trauma close to the center—has been to de-emphasize the salvific. This also has the consequence, perhaps, of divinizing finitude or nailing finitude to the heart of theology. The trinity, Tonstad argues, can do something else.

Theology may, in some quarters and territories, be losing its fictive impulses and Tonstad is working to revive them. Tonstad is ultimately reading theology, along with Marcella Althaus-Reid, as a “practice of transformation” whose main function is “to be fictitious” in the quest to express the inexpressible (137). And in the service of a more transformative fictiousness, Tonstad refuses to heed the subordinating call of death.

13 thoughts on “God, Death & the Abortion of Time

  1. I haven’t read Tonstad and no doubt my own perspectives would be quickly eschewed as patriarchal, heterosexual, etc.
    I’ve read a lot of Balthasar and I don’t think Tonstad’s critique as evinced here is accurate. One of Balthasar’s main influences was Erich Pryzwara. The analogy of being is precisely set up to scrupulously avoid any kind of naive, univocal equation that would be guilty of Tonstad’s censure, eg. “relations between created beings do not and should not directly image the relation between God and creation.” Nor would anyone who read Balthasar perceptively conclude that he had imported “finitude and its limits” into the divine nature. Further, the kind of radical transcendence of the divine that Tonstad appears to want to privilege is part of classical theism, recently well articulated in David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. The specific difference that comes out of tracing out the metaphysical implications of Trinity and creatio ex nihilo is worked out in Robert Sokolowski’s The God of Faith and Reason and in the work of David Burrell. Indeed, the real distinction between essence and existence is fundamental to Aquinas and Existential Thomists noted the implications for transcendence back in the 1920s and 30s.

    I’m rather surprised that you imagined your students would be deeply attached to transcendence or religious views of the afterlife. Aside from debased, sentimental depictions of the latter, there is little to sustain such a vision in popular or academic circles. The preference for finitude is deeply in-built in the culture at large. I applaud attempts at all levels to discover modes of living, thinking, and creating art that resist such a suffocating loss of hope in the transfiguration of the earth. The Russian “silver age” that gave us thinkers like Soloviev and Bulgakov surely provide helpful resources. I rather suspect, though this is all surmise, that some of these resources are likely to be missed by those allergic to more traditional modes of Christian thought.

  2. I think you’ve actually misread me here. What I wrote was that my students believe deeply in mortal decay. Whether or not they remain attached, on certain levels, to a transcendence of mortality is another issue. But what I’m suggesting here is that the speculative imagination – its fictive powers – has a potential to be muffled by the realities of mortal decay.

  3. Sorry, I am reading at work. Easy to misread material that is more substantial. I see your point, though does one actually have to believe in mortal decay when it’s reality is self-evident? Could you elaborate briefly what you mean by the fictive powers of the speculative imagination? Have you read William Desmond by any chance?

    Have to run, but I’ll check back tomorrow to see if you want to pursue this conversation or not. Alright if you don’t . . .

  4. brian, I appreciate that you think you’re adding to the conversation here and illuminating possibilities that haven’t been considered, but conversations around the concept of analogy, among other issues, have been had *over* and *over* on this blog. If you’re interested in why these wouldn’t have been the immediate conceptual recourse, you’re welcome to read back over that long history. As it is, acting on the assumption that the only reason no one ran straight for analogy is because they literally hadn’t heard of it strikes as, at best, slightly arrogant.

  5. Brian, This is the second time you’ve commented on a post on this blog and subsequently revealed that you didn’t read it attentively. Please don’t waste our time if you aren’t willing or able to engage seriously with our posts.

  6. Thank you for your kind replies. I initiated conversations here because I surmised what seemed to me wrong interpretations of figures I have read a great deal of — Milbank and Balthasar. I was trying to be polite. I don’t think I was always misreading. Further clarification made it evident that something else was intended. Sean, I certainly don’t see how I should be required to have prior knowledge of conversations and topics with a long history, but that is immaterial. Mutual antipathy is not worth anyone’s time. I have always found the tolerance of the left to be much more theoretical than practical.

  7. Merely asserting something is a misreading is a very common Milbankian move, but it is far from actually demonstrating a misreading. Just as there is a distance between the intention of being polite and the actual actions which are those of an ass.

  8. To further clarify: my clarification wasn’t for you. I want to make it clear to other potential commenters, brian, that your kind of behavior is not appreciated or welcome. That is to say, I want to be clear that you, in my opinion, are the entitled jerk here, despite your studiously polite tone. If you don’t want to do some background reading to learn about long-running dialogues, indeed, if you don’t even want to read our posts attentively or read the sources we’re referring to, then you are being rude by speaking up at all.

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