Difficult to discard

The following quote by Craig Keen was recently posted on Facebook,

The mystery before which I am to give up all my intellectual possessions is the mystery of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

My initial (and internal) response to the quote was to call bullshit.  The quote is written by an academic whose bread is buttered by an institution of intellectual possessions, posted on Facebook by an academic and will be read by those looking to secure such possessions.  I admit that I became a little reactionary in my response and Craig did respond to some of my comments.  The parallel he offered was that he was speaking to ‘thinkers’ in the manner that Jesus might have spoken of the wealth of the Rich Young Ruler.  This parallel further begged the question for me.  What might it look like to actually give away your intellectual possessions?

It seems to me that this sort of translation renders Jesus’ call overly subjective.  There is no quantitative measure to evaluate the response.  And of course the subjective is important, at least in my estimation.  It is, however, not what should be figured into this particular appropriation of Jesus’ words.  The reason Jesus’ words had impact was because of the evaluative position it put the Rich Young Ruler into.  There is a time to speak of the method of living after such a decisive choice, but not before.  So again, this leads me to ask whether there is any traction in claiming a parallel from Jesus’ words to the idea of giving up ‘intellectual’ possessions.

Sitting with this question for a time I began to reflect on my own trajectory in the past couple of years.  In those years I was confronted by the question of whether my view of the world reflected a type of ‘pious theology’ that actually insulated me from the sort of engagement with the world that my theology apparently called me to.  In other words, was the way I expressed or articulated my theology actually more significant then how my theology (intellectual possessions?) engaged the world?  I came to the conclusion that in many ways this was true.  I was more interested in preserving a theological form than engaging the world theologically.  And so, at times explicitly and at time implicitly, I set about ‘giving up’ many of my theological possessions.

What has been the result of this dispossession?  It has resulted in many theological statements (including the one above) coming across as more and more foreign or unintelligible.  These statements required the now discarded theological lenses to have meaning for me.

I of course do not claim to now have a privileged perspective on the situation and I do continue to hold on to intellectual possessions.  What is pressing remains the second half of the quote.  Is my dispossession occurring before the mystery of the crucifixion?  How would I know?

What has guided the last couple of years is the idea that the body of Christ is that which is gathered and formed in the spaces between the powers of death and those that suffer that power.  I would call my approach a mixture of liberation/anabaptist/natural/existential theologies.  So in many ways I would say that yes my approach has indeed been before the mystery of the crucifixion (though I may not always call it a mystery . . . sometimes it is far too blunt and pointed).  So why do I continue to find this great rub with other active theological voices in the blogosphere (though more often on Facebook now) that articulate an ‘apocalyptic’ posture towards the crucifixion?

Reflecting on how some earlier exchanges occurred there appears to be a fundamental difference in theological resources (again, possessions?).  I have discarded the primacy of orthodox doctrines (note I said discarded their primacy).  In place I hope to have a much more reflexive or affected approach to theology.  The claim of ‘natural theology’ has been leveled against this approach, and I suppose it is true as far as the label can go.  However, it is the only method I currently have that has any integrity or congruence.   And in this respect I do have a sense of and could articulate what it looks like for me to have discarded intellectual/theological possessions (and some days it is more than a little unnerving).  But it draws me back to my initial question.  How do one, particularly within a broadly ‘barthian’ posture, discard their intellectual possessions?  How do they know when they are encountering the ‘mystery of the crucifixion’ if not for at least a taint of natural theology.

To be clear I am not saying such discarding does not happen.  I am just not clear on what that could look like within the particular theological method I tend to encounter online.  I have noticed that Halden has shifted away from a particular ecclesiology.  I take it his theology was challenged at some point but what provides the criteria for a position to be ‘discarded’?  How is one persuaded or, again, how does one recognize encountering the mystery of the crucifixion?


7 comments on “Difficult to discard

  1. Craig Keen says:

    David, while I’m sitting here before a classroom of Systematic Theology students finishing a three and a half hour exam, I’m going to respond again to your post. I’m at a keyboard, not an iPhone, so it’s a little easier typing.

    Here are the questions that you seem to be most concerned with (please correct me if I’m wrong): “Is my dispossession occurring before the mystery of the crucifixion? How would I know? . . . How is one persuaded or, again, how does one recognize encountering the mystery of the crucifixion?”

    My response, I guess, is that one cannot know, if by “know” is meant “to grasp,” “to conceive,” “to wrap my mind around it,” i.e., “to know” as it has come broadly to be understood by academics and non-academics. I think that may be why Paul on at least a couple of occasions starts to say that we know something and this abruptly corrects himself by saying that we don’t so much know as are known. Galatians 4:9 is illustrative: “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?” It is this “to be known by God” that has yielded the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. How do we know? By being known–and that act is not just passive, just as being loved or gifted by God is not merely to be acted upon. When we are known, loved, gifted by God, we know, we love, we become gifts. I think this is another way of saying that knowing that it is before the mystery of God that dispossession takes place is an event, one that happens by happening. This is an ecclesial event, of course, not a private one. It is an event that is celebrated in the weeklong liturgy by and as which the church occurs. It has a kind of confirmation in that work and in that sense is “verified.” However, the truth that happens here is not something settled, held, ascertainable, any more than wind can be preserved in a Bell jar.

  2. I hear you affirming an affected posture, in part. I say in part because you end with the ‘of course’ of an ecclesial context but I think that is biblically unwarranted, as well as existentially. What I struggle with is why these accounts seem to come close to something that would broadly affirm ‘natural theology’ and by that I simply mean a reflexive existential theology of sorts. But it cannot go that far because, well, natural theology is just bad right? And so when I push on this I experience people grasping, erecting walls, throwing out theological maxims, and suddenly the conversation stalls.
    So again, I would claim that good theology is much more ‘natural’ then most people want to claim and if it is not that probably means it is evasive (not allusive) unless it also happens to be good poetry, but rarely the two meet, I think.
    And to put it back on Kierkegaard’s plate I think he advocated that thought is always thinking as immanence and that is why the movement towards religious discourse was a movement to the boring (in principle). But he was not evasive in sense of trying to flush out the extent to which immanent thought could explore and engage reality.
    To be known by God is powerful imagery to be sure but that does not negate the ‘natural’ process I am engaged in all the while (which is fully a part of theology). This is no claim to ‘possession’ just being clear, being honest, and being open in the world (this is what reflexive and affected means to me).

    • Craig Keen says:

      David, I’ll reply a little (and I guess I should post my stuff above in the FB conversation, too).

      I’m not sure I understand the way you’re using “affected.” It would help me if you say a little more about that. But while I’m waiting I’ll just pretend I understand you. It is a little awkward when I throw that “of course” in at the end. It would have been better if it had been clear from the beginning that I wasn’t speaking of some phenomenon in one’s private subjectivity. The reason why I don’t want this to come across as natural theology is not because natural theology is bad. Some of the most beautiful theology ever is done in that mode. I think of Tillich or Schleiermacher or even Whitehead (Whiteheadians tend to be much less beautiful). However, the reason why I don’t want to do theology in that mode, even if doing so would add some beauty to the stuff I do, is that natural theology leans on what is already in place, literally “what is.” Thus it prioritizes the old, the flesh. Of course, the old, the flesh, is entailed by (not-natural) theology, but the way a program is interrupted, sins are forgiven, or a tomb emptied. And so, the kind of theology I’m working to do is not at all about forgetting what was and is, but it remembers those things prioritizing what is to come. And so, I remember not only Kierkegaard, but also Heidegger. I remember Heidegger not because he’s right, or something, but because if I mess with his prose just a little (or maybe a lot), I find that I am saying things I probably would not have been in a position to say otherwise.

      About Kierkegaard: If we work from his pseudonyms’ accounts of the stages, then it can be said, I think, that the way thinking occurs depends on the mode of life one is living. An aesthete thinks in immediacy, but as a way of keeping everything happening in a rush. The thinking of the ethicist strikes the aesthete as boring, but it rises to think the universal, the truths that an exemplary life would agonize to lead. The thinking of the person of religious immanence is a thinking that pursues an absolute beyond the ethical universal, but which remains still confined in its own internality, its “spirituality.” The thinking of the person of religious transcendence is a thinking that gives itself to thinking what cannot be thought, a thinking expended outward toward the paradoxical, toward what is utterly unlike us (thus the doctrine of sin) and simultaneously what is utter outside us (thus the doctrine of the incarnation, that puts the object of thought in a moment of lived time on the other side of the world about 2000 years ago). To think this breaks every category that we’ve come to believe characterizes sound logic, not to mention all that we have committed ourselves to in settling for nothing short of what is by definition sound logic.

      Is this a natural process? Well, natural processes are involved, i.e., processes that have behind them the momentum of the old, of what was and what is. it is something other than natural, however, insofar as that very momentum is ruptured.

      (I probably left something unaddressed, but this is already too long, so I’ll stop here.)

  3. Craig that is helpful in understanding your position. BTW I am hoping to get a review copy of your new book so I may well have more questions in the future.
    What I mean by ‘affected’ is not allowing anything to be taken out of play. Not that all things are equal or that I give equal weight, or that things have inherent weight. But where we will part paths is with respect to your statement,
    [N]atural theology leans on what is already in place, literally “what is.” Yes, that is precisely what I want to practice. For me to practice otherwise comes off as evasion and demanding a privileged position. So as I mentioned earlier I tried to rid myself of those possessions. ‘What is’ is already in play, already shifting. If I attempt to work otherwise it strikes me as a possession of my own creation. I really don’t know how this might be coming off to you but to stretch the language I might say that ‘what is’ is what most people are not engaged with. They are engaged rather in the trade of idols. If there is a God then ‘what is’ is also God’s.
    So to give an example I have tried to discipline myself from importing theological possessions/objects into my hospital visitations. To be sure I do not go into them neutral. But still I come with the premise I must somehow work from ‘what is’; from the piss and shit and swelling and wounds rather than an imported theodicy or vision of glory in the clouds. I am not saying I might not get there but I am trying to not overlay those things from the get go.
    Again, thanks for clarifying your position on this.

  4. Craig Keen says:

    David, I think we are really close. I, too, want to take everything in, to open to it and say “Yes!” to it, to love it, but in such a way that I don’t wave goodbye to it as it plummets into oblivion. And I don’t want to love it by making it mine, by appropriating it, or enlarging myself by it, e.g., as a consumer. I want to love it as what I am not and never will be. Kierkegaard has a wonderful chapter very near the end of *Works of Love* on “recollecting the dead.” It is a kind of gentle acknowledgement of the strange possibility of entering the love of God, a love that for Kierkegaard meets us as the future, and doing so in a hope that is not held back even by death, a hope in which even the dead have a place.

    If you’re able to read that book of essays, please do let me know what you think. I am very grateful to Nate and Thomas for putting them together and for Cascade for publishing the volume.

    Back to grading!

  5. Its funny you should mention Works of Love. The last few sections of that book are some of my favourite by Kierkegaard. But I take his last section on ‘like-for-like’ as actually coming close to closing the presence of God into an immanent and affected posture that I have been trying to articulate. It was that section that struck me as so jarring in comparison or in supplement to some of his other expressions of faith’s leap.
    I am not trying to claim we are far off I only know that I have put my eschatology back into play and as of yet it is unsettled.

    • Craig Keen says:

      That I think is very good news, David. Maybe the most we are to hope for is that our eschatologies are to come back into play as unsettled.

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