For Our Sins

I have a chapter in a new book out now: Afxentis Afxentiou, Robin Dunford and Michael Neu (eds), Exploring Complicity: Concepts, Cases and Critiques (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). My chapter is called ‘For Our Sins: Christianity, Complicity and the Racialized Construction of Innocence’. The whole book is worth a read, but you can also get hold of my chapter here.

Books I read in 2016

Following on a suggestion from APS, for the past couple of years I’ve been keeping a note of all the books I finish. It’s been helpful to have a record, although occasionally difficult to resist turning it into a measure of productivity and consequently a source of anxiety. This year my fiction reading – mostly scifi – has been much less eclectic than my non-fiction reading which has, looking back, been kind of all over the place. The books I read this year that I enjoyed most, that stayed with me the longest, or that most shaped my thinking were, in roughly chronological order:

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

Melissa Gregg, Work’s Intimacy

Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class

Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (eds), Sisters of the Revolution

Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk

The Mud Flower Collective, God’s Fierce Whimsy: Christian Feminism and Theological Education

Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television

Nalo Hopkinson, Skin Folk

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic

Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle

Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality and the Transformation of Finitude

W G Sebald, Austerlitz

George Ciccariello-Maher, Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancioğlu, How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

Joan Sloncezwski, A Door Into Ocean

Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity


Help me plan an Introduction to Political Philosophy

Next semester I’ll be teaching a module on political philosphy to a mixture of first year students taking courses in Philosophy, Religion and Ethics and in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. This is the rubric I’ve inherited:

This module introduces themes, theoretical perspectives and concepts in the study of politics and political philosophy and aims to develop an understanding of how political institutions operate and of how they are underpinned by adherence to a variety of political philosophies, or ideologies that act, globally, to order the global environment. The concepts and institutions studies are from a western perspective in order to, first, ground students in a knowledge of these themes per se but, second, to provide a framework for comparative study of non-western polities analysed in greater depth in Levels 5 and 6, such as those in the Middle East and China, in order to gauge the extent that western concepts of politics have been adapted, accepted or rejected in different environments. This is achieved by a pattern of lectures, seminars, tutorials and workshops.

Set texts look at key political thinkers from classical times through the Enlightenment to the present day (for instance Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, Burke, Marx & Engels, Gramsci, Marcuse, Hayek and Habermas) in order to examine such issues as power, justice, order, war, legitimacy, accountability, sovereignty and other issues of concern to the practice of politics and government at country specific, regional and local levels.

It’s essentially an introduction to modern Western political philosophy, then, and I’m grappling with the question of how to “teach the canon” whilst also trying to remake or decolonise it. I have eleven weeks, and this is the sketch I’ve got so far: I’d really appreciate any critiques, suggestions about how I could organise it better or differently, and recommendations of good primary or secondary reading either for myself or my students:

1 Introduction: what is political philosophy (with some selections from Nancy Fraser or Michael Freedon)
2 Hobbes
3 Locke
4 Rousseau and Louverture
5 Marx (with some space in the lecture for talking about Adam Smith and Marxisms-after-Marx)
6 J S Mill (perhaps paired with Wollstonecraft?)
7 Hannah Arendt
8 Foucault on disciplinary societies
9 Judith Butler on grievable lives, Agamben on homo sacer
10 Neoliberalism (Hayek)
11 Sara Ahmed on the cultural politics of emotion

Žižek and ‘the Left’

I’ve just finished reading Žižek’s book on the refugee crisis,  Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours. Don’t read it: it’s terrible. It’s all of the worst bits of Žižek with none of the best bits, except for a bunch of the same tired old arguments he repeats in twenty of his earlier, better books. I wish that he would stop, and I wish that people would stop enabling him.

The biggest problem with the book is its sheer laziness. Žižek can’t even be bothered to connect up the bits of his own argument, let alone spend any meaningful time paying attention to what’s going on in the world. He argues that the good thing about religious fundamentalisms is that at least religious fundamentalists won’t ever form political alliances with each other across religious lines – right after a discussion of the role of religious fundamentalism in contemporary Israeli politics. He argues that it’s all very well to argue that we should abolish borders but we can’t do that unless we’re also willing to abolish capitalism, as though the people arguing for the abolition of borders aren’t mostly anarcho-communists. He argues that (unlike in other parts of the world) in the West acts of terrorism are shocking because violence isn’t woven into the fabric of our daily lives, and then goes on to talk about Ferguson and violence against indigenous women. He argues that Ferguson was just a spontaneous outburst of aimless frustration that achieved nothing, as though it wasn’t a catalyst for political organising around the world.

Continue reading “Žižek and ‘the Left’”

Help me plan a course about Jesus

Next semester I’ll be teaching a module on ‘The Many Faces of Jesus’ that I’ve inherited from a predecessor. This is the module description and indicative course outline I’m working with: I’ve got some freedom to work within these constraints but what I teach has to broadly fit this framework, which has been officially approved by the department (in case any pedagogy nerds are interested in the different constraints at play in UK teaching):

This module engages critically with some of the key ways in which the Christian tradition has understood Jesus and his saving significance. The module begins with a study of key New Testament texts concerning Jesus. Then crucial debates in the patristic era will be looked at in detail, including the critical decisions reached at the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. Contemporary discussions surrounding the historical Jesus and Christ of faith will also be evaluated, as well as contemporary theological understandings of Jesus. The module will also examine non-Christian understandings of Jesus, especially in Judaism and Islam.

Indicative Outline Content
a.i.1. Who did Paul think Jesus was?
a.i.2. Who did John think Jesus was?
a.i.3. Who did Jesus think Jesus was?
a.i.4. How on earth did Jesus become a God? The Arian Crisis
a.i.5. Was Jesus truly human? The Nestorian controversy
a.i.6. The Chalcedonian Definition… and its Aftermath
a.i.7. The Birth of Jesus in Contemporary Theology
a.i.8. The Death of Jesus in Contemporary Theology
a.i.9. The Resurrection of Jesus in Contemporary Theology
a.i.10. The Quests for the Historical Jesus
a.i.11. Jewish and Islamic perspectives on Jesus
a.i.12. Can a male saviour save women?

It’s obviously going to be a bit of a whistlestop tour of Christology through the centuries, and I’m struggling to work out how best to manage things – I’d like to give a bit more space to non-Western Christologies in the second half of the model, and I’d really appreciate any recommendations for good primary and secondary readings to assign my students. Is there anything important missing from this outline? Are there any books I really have to read as I get planning? I’m definitely going to go back to Virginia Burrus’ Begotten Not Made, Boyarin’s Border Lines, and I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way to squeeze in Du Bois’ Jesus Christ in Texas.

On ‘identity politics’

For a good few years now, ‘the left’ has been repeatedly returning to arguments about ‘identity politics’ – whether it’s a proper concern for left political debate and struggle, whether it’s compatible with an analysis of class, whether it’s a distraction, or liberal, or ‘sour-faced’ etc etc. But it seems like these conversations often assume that everybody know what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘identity politics’. I don’t think that’s the case – or, better, I think that often critiques or dismissals of ‘identity politics’ are doing two quite different things, although sometimes they’re both happening at the same time and are not easy to disentangle from one another.

Sometimes critiques of identity politics are just the boring Marxist assertion that class comes first and everything else is a distraction (usually combined with some degree of contempt for people of colour, women, queer people etc). And sometimes they are an attempt to distinguish between the liberal politics which demands the inclusion of a wider range of identities within the existing order (so the institution of marriage is fine, it just needs to be extended to same sex couples; liberal democracy is fine, it just needs to be extended to women or black people) and the radical politics which says that the exclusion of particular identities from the existing order offers an insight into the ways in which the existing order is totally fucked and needs to be overthrown.

Žižek, for example, does both of these things, but because he doesn’t engage with radical forms of ‘identity politics’ the impact of his argument on his readers seems to be mostly to encourage the assumption that it’s just not important to think about racism, the gendered construction of class, etc. Which perhaps suggests a useful way of distinguishing between helpful critiques of identity politics and unhelpful ones: is this just a way of saying that concerns about racism, sexuality, colonialism etc. aren’t important, or is it a critique of liberal demands for inclusion which leave the existing system basically intact (although, as Amaryah points out, sometimes identity politics in this mode are not about liberalism so much as survival pending revolution)? If the latter, then where is the radical analysis of the structuring roles that white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and so on and so on play in the existing order of things so that we can’t fully address them without a properly revolutionary politics?

Special edition of Theology and Sexuality

There’s a new edition of Theology and Sexuality out now, collecting articles from a panel organised by the Gay Men and Religion group at AAR, reflecting on twenty years since the publication of Robert Shore-Goss’s important book Jesus ACTED UP: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto. The special edition also includes reviews of recent publications in the field of theology and sexuality, including two by me: a review of Anne Clements’ Mothers on the Margin? The Significance of Women in Jesus’ Genealogy and a review of Ted Jennings’ An Ethic of Queer Sex: Principles and ImprovisationsIf there’s anything else in the edition that you’re interested in but can’t access because of the paywall, let me know!

AUFS at the AAR/SBL 2016

Various AUFS contributors will be giving papers or presiding at the AAR in San Antonio this year. Here’s a list of some of the places you’ll find us; feel free to use the comments below to highlight any panels/papers/buffets AUFS readers might be especially interested in.

Comparative Theology Group and Roman Catholic Studies Group
Theme: Comparative Theologies of Creation: Engaging Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’
Saturday – 1:00 PM-3:30 PM
Convention Center-007B (River Level)
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis traces the origin of the ecological crisis to the “technocratic paradigm” and proposes a “Gospel of Creation” to assert the goodness and intrinsic value of Earth’s creatures, beyond their use to humans, and to embed the human person within a “universal communion” of creatures. In addition, Pope Francis encourages all religions “to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature.” This panel will explore comparative theologies of creation, or of cosmological order of some kind for traditions in which there is no “Creator,” to explore conceptual frameworks that can spur all traditions to protect nature. Panelists will draw on Hindu, Buddhist, American Indian, and Confucian theologians in dialogue with Christian interlocutors to explore themes of cosmic belonging, traditions of visualization, the liquidity of landscapes, and creatio ex profundis/qi. The respondent will identify promising similarities and crucial differences between the four presentations.

Daniel Scheid, Duquesne University
Cosmic Belonging in Catholic and Hindu Theologies of Creation

Thomas Cattoi, Graduate Theological Union
Laudato Si’ and a Broader Vision of Reality: Theologies of Purified Vision in Theodore the Studite and Bokar Rinpoche

Jea Sophia Oh, West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Pope Francis’ Integral Ecology and a Nondualistic Interconnected Cosmology in Catherine Keller and Neo-Confucian Zhang Zai

June-Ann Greeley, Sacred Heart University
A Comparative Eco-Theology of Water: Correspondences between Pope Francis and Native American Cosmologies

Anthony Paul Smith, La Salle University
The Limits of the Common: A Decolonial Reading of Laudato Si’

Reid Locklin, University of Toronto

Theology and Continental Philosophy Group
Theme: Race, Capital, and Resistance
Unregistered Participant, Presiding
Saturday – 4:00 PM-6:30 PM
Convention Center-206A (2nd Level – West)
A series of investigations into the complex relationship between race and capitalism and the importance of attention to both factors in resisting neoliberal hegemony.

David Kline, Rice University
Resisting White American Christian Immunity: Theo-Pragmatics and Autoimmune Openings

Anthony Paul Smith, La Salle University
Exiled from the World: The Figure of the Black Muslim in Continental Philosophy of Religion

Timothy Snediker, University of California, Santa Barbara
Theodicy of Money: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Apparatus of Forgiveness

Andrew Krinks, Vanderbilt University
Property Lines and the Production of Personhood: On the Theo-Logics of Racial Capitalism

Beatrice Marovich, Hanover College

Liberation Theologies Group and Religion, Holocaust, and Genocide Group
Theme: Refugee Crisis: Past and Present
Alana Vincent, University of Chester, Presiding
Sunday – 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Convention Center-207B (2nd Level – West)
This panel will expose and explore the resonance or dissonance between refugees in the 1930s and 1940s with that in the present day. This includes examinations or analyses of the treatment of refugees or the discourses (e.g. political, social, religious or economic) that surround them.

Marika Rose, Durham University
Fantasies of Europe: Žižek, Liberation Theology, and the Refugee Crisis

Jordan Rowan Fannin, Baylor University
Getting Hold of the Wrong Horror: Misperceptions of Violence in the Plight of Refugees Past and Present

Ulrich Schmiedel, Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich
Mourning the Un-Mournable: Rethinking Dignity in-between Refugees and Religion

Christian Systematic Theology Section
Theme: The Spirit: Engaging Christian Traditions
Holly Taylor Coolman, Providence College, Presiding
Monday – 1:00 PM-3:30 PM
Convention Center-215 (2nd Level – West)

Unregistered Participant
Contested Pneumatologies: J. Daniélou and G. Thils on the Role of the Holy Spirit in the 20th c. Theology of History Debates

Harald Hegstad, MF Norwegian School of Theology
Overcoming the Pneumatological Deficit of the Doctrine of Justification

Ekaterina Lomperis, University of Chicago
Discerning the Early Protestant Spirit: Martin Luther, Medical Cessationism, and the Spirit’s Work of Healing

Marika Rose, Durham University
Tongues of Fire, Thrones of Fire: Angels and the Spirit in Dionysius the Areopagite and Thomas Aquinas

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!