Perfect God or public faith; Or, why theology needs better options

Ben Myers recent posts (here and here) at Faith and Theology are reminders that the church and its theology often do not give very good choices. In these posts Myers reflects on the broad change in his thinking that went from being ‘apocalyptic’ to ‘eschatological’. In Myers’ words an apocalyptic orientation understands,

that God does not have an originating relationship to the world so much as an interruptive relationship.  God bursts in on the world like an alien intruder. God comes to knock things into shape.

In hindsight Myers reads this interest as reflecting,

ordinary youthful iconoclasm. All young people, young men in particular, feel a certain resentment towards the status quo and a certain seething desire to imprint their own will on to the order of things. Call it a rage against mortality. Anyway, when you allow that kind of resentment to guide your thinking, you easily end up with what Augustine called the libido dominandi, the lust to master reality and to make it conform to your own ideals.

Apocalyptic then, for Myers, was the option of projecting idealistic angst upon the notion of God so that God was (and could only be) understood as the one who breaks in with unprecedented presence, completely outside the current order of things. The realities of life, however, brought him to another consideration. He now had children to consider. He became immersed in the actual workings of institutions and he returned to early Christian writings. This led to a dramatic shift in his orientation. He now saw the doctrine of creation as needed to hold at bay the type of libido that apocalyptic rage against the world could ignite. This led Myers to a theological and practical position which proclaimed a divine transcendent order in which we could work and testify to in partial and real ways. Put simply Myers seems to have positioned his move from idealism to realism.

I think what has been most frustrating for me is that, on a certain and decisive register, Myers’s logic has not changed at all. Myers is still working within a clear framework of transcendence. This is of course makes sense given his Christian orthodox orientation but it should be noted that this is not the only logic to work within (Christian or otherwise).

The most troubling aspect of his posts is that he is indeed right about his critique but wrong about his change (or that he fails to follow through on his critique). I agree that there is a youthful male (and usually white) lust for control. For many of us this means that we rage against the Father (in the psychoanalytic sense of the one who sets the rules). Again, Myers is right this is typically pious fervor then learns some form of apocalyptic rhetoric but never intends or is able to kill the Father. Some white dudes just end up pouting longer than others. The change, I guess, is Myers’ relation to the Father. The Father is still in control and now the son can be more at peace knowing the world is won for him in the end, the inheritance is secure and there is even a portion of it to share in now if he goes about his Father’s business.

Myers, it seems, has allowed his life to be a bit more enjoyable, I think. Good. Fine. Just don’t speak publicly. To speak publicly in the register of divine transcendence is to always hedge for the Father in a way that positions him as determining and also out of reach. In Myers’ words,

That there is a divine order of perfect justice which transcends human history and relativises every social order.

The result is that both postures do not need to learn from anyone, least of all the least of all (it is self-sufficient, superior, prior to contact).

It does not take long to know that life is compromised. Yes, as I said, some continue to pout and posture in apocalyptic ideals but most of us know that is not where life is lived out. So, to return to Myer’s medium of biography, I too have changed. This change can be directly related to my being confronted in my apocalyptic / eschatological transcendence. I was challenged to consider that both forms of transcendence reflected ideological (and, I would say, idolatrous) stances. To put it simply I was convicted of my inability to be open to and affected by those who challenged my notion of a “divine order of perfect justice”. Through this conviction a change came where I entered a commitment of attention to what was around me (materially, discursively, affectively, etc.). I attempted to not pull rank on these realities and instead allowed for a further mutual-affection (to love the world?).

I have written about some aspects of this change before (pastorally, conceptually, ecclesially) .

All this to say that Myers has not changed, not really. He was right in his critique but wrong in his response. I am also further ‘implicated’ in the discourses/institutions around me. I have a kid. I have a leadership position in the church. I have a mortgage. I am ‘invested’. But to return to my comment about being public, to the extent that I speak and act publicly (and I appreciate I should not always speak) it should be in the service of those disadvantaged and suffering under the current order. So I will not speak publicly about a divine order of perfect justice which transcends human history. When I speak I hope it is to critique the present powers, to lend support to those who need it, and to allow my voice to be critiqued in light of the present powers. My knowledge, faith, and action comes from the eternal relay with the world engaging for freedom and against slavery; which, again, I must continually learn from my neighbour (pretty Christ-like, no?).

This commitment, while becoming more ‘invested’ in the institutions, has also led to more conflict and antagonism. It has demanded more from me in terms of being able to describe and navigate my place in the discursive flows. Rather than appeal to transcendence I am trying to figure out what it is to become public; that is, to express good news (or to be quiet when there is none). So while I remain invested, I also have regular conversations with my wife about the possibilities that there may be time when I will not be employed by the church.

The change then is the commitment to what being public means, which is the mutual relay of my engagement with the world apart from a transcendent authority. This is not a woe-is-me statement, it actually points back to my privilege in the discourse. I could, if I wanted or if I didn’t pay attention, easily slip back into the flow of some discourses that I have been trying to distance myself from or create antagonism with (my existence is loaded with the tone, gender, and tradition that would allow this easily). The converse of this need to be intentional is that for many people their very existence (tone, gender, tradition) is experienced as an antagonism, a rejection or abjection of their lives from the dominant discourse (and so to cope there has been the closet or the white mask). This, it seems to me, is a fundamentally different experience than what I am going through in ‘becoming public’. Many others are cast out, stripped of discursive power in the public domain. I cannot forget that.

I don’t begrudge Myers for attending to his family and working hard in his institution but his public framing of this ‘change’ is false and potentially destructive (and in many ways I take his account as symbolic of many theological expressions). This is not the only option. I am working within the institution of the church to try and change that.

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4 comments on “Perfect God or public faith; Or, why theology needs better options

  1. Ryan says:

    What about when it is precisely those who are farthest from positions of influence, privilege, and esteem, those who have been marginalized by dominant narratives, those who suffer most deeply that cling most fiercely to “a divine order of perfect justice which transcends human history?” I remember sitting with an elderly aboriginal man a while back whose eschatology was about as rigid and fundamentalist as any you could hope to imagine. There was no doubt in his mind that such a divine order existed.

    One move that is sometimes made here is to say that is but another regrettable effect of colonial realities—that such conceptions of “a divine order of perfect justice” have been foisted upon those on the margins by others, and that they are simply expressing such conceptions in the absence of other, better options. Perhaps. Although it could also be interpreted as yet another example of those who enjoy the benefits of privilege presuming to interpret the experiences and beliefs of those who do not.

  2. I don’t have some formulaic response. The point is that I attend in the particular. I have been in similar situations and correcting doctrine is typically not my concern (though the question comes to mind). I don’t try to convert to a belief in immanence but I am, at this point, committed to it as a way of engaging the Gospel.

  3. Ryan says:

    I’m not looking for a formulaic response. I guess I’m just trying to understand why “attending to the particular” needs to be in opposition to the approach Myers seems to be advocating.

    It seems to me that we all rely on transcendent categories of some kind or another. The privileging of freedom over slavery and marginal voices over dominant modes of discourse certainly seems to require a vision of justice that appeals to something beyond the particular for its legitimacy.

  4. I suppose I need to be careful. My own change, like Ben’s, is autobiographical. It has, I think, helped dislodge some of my supremacist theological baggage. I try to point that logic out in expressions / people that are in similar situations as myself (hence my talk at MC Canada flows out of this as well) because I do think it is prone to harm or at least resistant to needed change.
    Yes, there are consistent concepts, categories, and visions but traditional or orthodox transcendence tends to authorize these concepts in a way that sets the agenda wherever it goes.

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