Apocalyptic (in)difference

This post is Linn Tonstad’s response to the various contributors to the event on her book, God and Difference. The introduction to the book event and links to all the posts are available here.

I want to express my thanks to all the contributors and to Marika Rose for the careful and creative engagement that’s left me like a kid enjoying an Advent calendar: there’s a new one today! It’s an absolute delight to find my work engaged with in the ways that each of these contributions does. My primary response, then, combines gratitude and thoughtfulness: each of the responses gives me something further to think about, especially as I’m in the process of developing some of the promissory notes in the constructive portions of the book in my next project. I’m particularly glad to see that the apocalyptic material in the book found resonance in so many different directions, as it’s absolutely central to my theological project as a whole.

Reading Ashon Crawley’s response was very nearly the first time since finishing God and Difference that I thought: wow, I might have yet more to say about the trinity! The way he found trinitarian bodies not only in worship among the contestatorily different-together, but used to ratify “treaties between nations and … on the bill of sale for enslaved persons.” There are other incarnational, trinitarian stories that remain to be told. Like Crawley, though in different ways, my religious/political history traces back to people who were quite skeptical of the trinity. Early Seventh-day Adventists were often what trinitarian heresy-seekers like to designate as Arian. Although I registered for a course on the trinity in my first semester in graduate school, I came in thinking that no less significant a topic could likely be imagined: the course itself would prove, I thought, that my suspicions of theology’s Weltfremdlichkeit/Weltfeindlichkeit were indeed rightly founded. As my work became increasingly entangled with the trinity over the years that followed, my mother’s family—Iraqi Christians, once Jacobite, later Baptist, eventually Seventh-day Adventist—would nod approvingly as I explained the deleterious effects of fatherhood/sonship: entangled in an often contumacious Christian-Muslim lifeworld in which differences between Christians weigh nearly as heavily, one commonality to which they held was the inapplicability of language of begetting to God. It was reassuring to find that infidelity to the trinity was also faithfulness to a different transmission, the double difference of the Arab (hence polyfidelity). As one easily assimilable to US-American whiteness where I now live, notably less so to the Norwegianness in which I was raised—the boundaries of the latter are far less capacious—the differences of different forms of difference within racialization are always alive.

Beatrice Marovich beautifully lays out one of the issues around which much theological, philosophical, and theoretical disagreement currently takes place: what does the affirmation of finitude require? Is it possible to protest some aspects of finitude and its distortions without denying finitude (and so the created and birth-giving body) as such? I too am weary of death: death dealt, death glorified. Philosophers have far too often thought that hatred of death was a hatred of one’s own death, fear of one’s own limitations. But so often, hatred of death is hatred of the death of others: irreplaceable others whose disappearance unsubstitutably diminishes shared human lifeworlds. I do not, after all, really experience my own death. I do experience the deaths of others. Have philosophy and theology been able to get out of the obsession with chastising masculinist distaste for limits in order to see that hatred of death, weariness of death, may be as much if not more other-oriented than self-obsessive? Alexander Weheliye is among those turning to death as social rather than individual, a direction that I find promising for feminist thought as well.

What to say in response to Adam Kotsko? Yes, exactly. Differences are different! I deeply appreciate his appreciative representation of the stakes of what I do in God and Difference. I certainly hope that our shared suspicion of what dominant strands in contemporary academic theology are after turns out to be misplaced, but I’m not particularly sanguine. Academic theology too often functions as an attempt to cover over one’s own worst impulses. One instructs others to be humble and non-dominant as a way of asserting one’s dominance over them. I’d say more but it would only be a repetition of what I’ve already said; I do wish of course that I could retroactively add a blurb from Kotsko to the book!

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza seeks non-teleological becoming along with an ethics of bottoming. I love the unapologetic denial of representationalism in their work, especially in connection with the logic of the market. As Henderson-Espinoza and I have both learned from Althaus-Reid, queerness requires consideration of economy. Their “affirmative kenosis that privileges the agency of the ‘bottom’” puts kenosis at the margins of the margins. I too seek to avoid a becoming that is oriented along a straight line in which all is determined in advance, in continuity with what has already been. But I’m still not clear why we should ‘rescue’ kenosis. It may be because of the T-theological literature that I spend part of my time engaging that I cannot see why I have to go to kenosis, ekstasis, and ascesis at all. I’m tired of the magical triad that gets us out of every theoretical difficulty. I think what Henderson-Espinoza is after in an affirmative kenosis is decidedly worth pursuing, but I don’t see why it needs to be framed in that particular language, which has (for me at least) become less than illuminating. The distaste for that language may, on my part, be similar to the exhaustion that I experience when opening yet another excitedly hyped new book (as I did just last week) that not only makes every move I map critically in chapter 5, but presents each one as though it’s a radical breakthrough that will finally get us through supposedly fundamental aporias that result from starting at the wrong place to begin with. To be clear, I don’t think Robyn starts at the wrong place at all; but I just can’t with kenosis anymore.

APS goes the furthest in experimenting with the experimental forms of writing found in the book. I am sadly making the decision not to respond in quite the same terms, temping though it is. White male self-examination is ably analyzed and performed (simultaneously, as it has to be) in his writing. For what it’s worth, I do believe that even cis-gender, white, straight men may in the end be saved from phallic logic and the womb-wound (although not as cis, white, straight, or male, any more than the rest of us may be saved by what in us is most distorted and distortive). What he sees as vacillation between academic style and honest impropriety, I wrote as honest speech in different voices. Or, maybe better, each is as honest as the other (and as dishonest too, for neither honesty nor authenticity is a value I claim or enforce, perhaps because purity, gnostic or otherwise, is not something I understand—the sort of Protestant that I am accepts that I’m liable to misuse the best in the worst manner). APS points out one of the decisions that I spent the most time second-guessing while writing the book: Should sonship be contrasted with slavery, or does such a move simply reinscribe and sacralize fundamental European-racial distinctions between persons who have property in themselves and their labor, and so have rights, and persons who are property, both worker and commodity, and so have no rights? How to consider images of slavery across the break/big bang of European colonial-capitalism/racial capitalism (for slavery in Rome is not the same as slavery in the USA)? There is much to say about this question. If I seek to defend my use of the distinction in the book, as I do, ambivalently, I’d say merely the following at this point: the point of the distinction is that adoptive sonship gives human beings, God’s slaves, the right to make demands of God, even though we have no such rights. It’s not clear to me that this usage necessarily repeats the fundamental exclusion-distinction between free rights-havers and property: here, property has rights. One might say, in one mood, that being God’s property is what gives us rights that don’t properly belong to us. Maybe I should have said that in the divine economy, only the slave has the rights of sonship, rather than suggesting that we are transformed from slaves to friends, although that has its own risks. God’s work in the world is (in this sense teleologically oriented) to end submission, sacrifice, and substitution; it’s hard (but perhaps not impossible) to make that point without picking up some biblical language around the nature of submission. Now, such language must be used with caution: as God and Difference argues perhaps to the point of tediousness, language works for God, in the God-world relation, and for human beings in slippery, interrelated, but different ways, and imagery that works in one way here might work quite differently when applied somewhere else. Theological proposals often mean against intent, and language of slave/free is no different (even as it is different) from gendered theological language in this regard. Hence the experimental character of my argument, and, I believe, of theology in general: a proposal is an exploratory topography. Such maps may merely redistribute colonial landmarks, as Marcella Althaus-Reid argues so effectively regarding kenotic proposals that share God the Father’s imperial power with Jesus (see Queer God), or they may decolonize. The test, as I’ve argued, is in use and effect. One can, of course, reject simply on the basis of association, but the relative tediousness of some of the technical details of God and Difference (its decency, that is) is not only a strategy for survival, but a claim for forms of rigorous experimental testing that start from association but do not remain there.

A final word? Beyond gratitude, I want more!