Last weekend, my wife Kathleen and I made our annual trip to the big city to hobnob with 10,000 religion scholars. That is, we attended that convention of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago, November 17-20. As per usual, we had a great time. This year, things were pretty low key—both in the sense of not having many responsibilities and of not attending any high powered, life changing sessions (no Cornel West, Judith Butler, Jeffrey Stout, or Robert Bellah this year).
As always, the biggest highlights were the times with friends—especially those who I usually only see at these meetings, but also some new friends (including meeting in the flesh a couple of cyber friends) and even some good times with people I see regularly.
Because I didn’t have much business to attend to and didn’t really have much interest in the book fair (I’m not quite sure why this was; in the past, I spent as many hours as I could with the always amazing collection of books from hundreds of publishers—maybe as I get older I realize just how many books I already have that I will never read), we spent most of our time attending sessions. While my socks stayed securely on my feet throughout, I still found the sessions interesting and stimulating of thought—even if mostly it was to argue against much of what I heard. Here are some highlights.
Pacifist OT scholars who affirm a violent God.
My first two sessions featured Old Testament scholars who spoke as pacifists and yet also affirmed that “God is no pacifist.” I plan to write an entire post directly related to some of the thinking these sessions stimulated for me. While I am glad to hear all affirmations of pacifism, especially in this setting where such references are exceedingly rare, I find this line of thought deeply problematic.
I believe that the image of God that we construct shapes our ideals for human life. I don’t think the idea that we as people should be pacifists while God retains the “prerogative” to engage in violence is coherent or sustainable. If our idea of God includes God acting violently, our pacifism likely is going to be superficial and unstable.
Part of the problem with this “God is no pacifist” view is that it often seems to be based on a kind of historical literalism. If we are required to see the Bible’s accounts of divinely-initiated violence as historically accurate in their portrayal of God, we are stuck with a terrible contradiction between that account of God and God as revealed in Jesus. Such pacifists as the two OT scholars I heard do have ways of working at this contradiction, but these seem pretty convoluted and unconvincing—and unnecessary. The Bible itself doesn’t require this kind of historical literalism and a high view of biblical inspiration does not require it either.
Most of all, though, I wonder why a pacifist would not be committed to thinking consistently as a pacifist. As one questioner from the audience asked, why are we so afraid to affirm that God is nonviolent? I appreciate what one of the OT scholars said when he affirmed that his pacifism is rooted in the OT. I agree. But for me that means that we seek a reading of the OT that provides a strong foundation for pacifism. This must be possible given that the OT was the only Bible Jesus and Paul and John of Patmos had. Those three thinkers all did wonderful pacifist theologizing and give us images of God wherein God’s mercy serves as our model as we love our enemies (Luke 6), wherein God loves God’s own enemies (Romans 6), and wherein God is seen most clearly and normatively in the self-giving love of the Lamb (Revelation 5).
And then I wonder what it actually would mean to say that God is violent. What does this violence look like? How does God kill when God does so? How do we know it is God? What forms of killing are there that don’t involve “collateral damage” or the occasional death of an innocent person or the empowerment of unjust human institutions?
Given the likelihood that allowing for God to be violent will underwrite human violence, it seems much better to me to struggle with the difficulties in the biblical accounts from the point of view of wresting pacifist readings out of them than to retain a violent God or even irresolvable “messiness” that leaves the Bible as something less than a call to thoroughgoing peaceableness.
Cultured despisers of Revelation
The first two papers we heard in a session on the Book of Revelation were from scholars who made no claim to be pacifists. However, their points of view echoed the OT scholars in some important ways. The God of Revelation, as presented in these two papers, also is best understood as no pacifist. In fact, in ways way beyond what the pacifist OT scholars were suggesting, the God of Revelation was presented as being judgmental, punitive, retributive, consistently and thoroughly violent to the core.
Part of the problem in Revelation, according to the first of the two papers, is that John of Patmos, while trying to witness against the Roman Empire, took on too many Roman aspirations and ends up simply affirming the same violent dynamics of the Empire, only with his own community on top as their God crushes the Romans (along with crushing other Christians that John disagreed with).
Unfortunately, neither of these two scholars showed evidence of having engaged the strong stream of scholarly interpretation of Revelation that sees the book as indeed presenting a God who is nonviolent, whose ways with the world are merciful not retributive, who seeks the healing of all humanity, and who is explicitly linked with the suffering Lamb in the “highest” christology of the entire New Testament (see, for example, the work of Richard Bauckham, David Barr, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, G. B. Caird, Barbara Rossing, et al). They may still end up disagreeing with this interpretive stream, but by their failure to engage it at all they displayed what could be interpreted to be either egregious ignorance or blindered ideology.
It was sad, because both papers displayed creative insights in many other respects. I made a comment in the discussion that actually Revelation could help them in their ethical and theological concerns instead of being a foil to construct their arguments over against. But they weren’t very responsive to my ideas….
A progressive response to Obama
Gary Dorrien has emerged in recent years as a genuine force of nature in American theology and theological ethics. One of his most recent books was a politically and theologically progressive accounting of the first three years of the Obama administration. We attended a session featuring a panel of several scholars responding to Dorrien’s Obama book in light of the recent election, followed by Dorrien’s own reflections.
It was a good session. I felt that the perspectives articulated seemed to combine an appropriate amount of affirmation of Obama’s policies (understood in light of the current broader social dynamics in the US) with many sharp criticisms. No one here was an uncritical apologist for Obama—while all recognized the good (or lack of bad) that has resulted from Obama being in power compared to the likely alternatives. I felt that my arguments in my recent series of posts on the 2012 president election were largely reinforced by what I heard. Dorrien’s reflections were especially insightful, I thought.
However, I think I might have been lulled into complacency in the course of the session. Politically, I found it encouraging to be surrounded by progressives who only grudgingly expressed gladness at Obama’s re-election. My friend Blair, who attended the session with Kathleen and me, pointed out to us immediately afterwards that the session was notable for its almost complete silence regarding Obama’s militarism, most centrally the widespread use of the morally bankrupt death-by-drones.
Of course, there are many issues of great urgency where Obama needs alternately to be challenged to move in a more humane direction or supported in the moves he has already made in that direction. But probably no issue reveals as clearly the failure of his presidency to move the country away from the abyss of spiraling violence and profoundly misplaced priorities than the expansion of the practice of death-dealing military interventions. It is interesting (and quite discouraging) to notice that even these religious progressives remained silent on such a fundamental problem—a problem people of faith should see more clearly and be more motivated to resist than anyone.
So, then we must ask, what is wrong with progressive Christianity that leads to this silence? I’d actually insist on broadening this question because almost all other branches of Christianity are silent about this problem as well (not to mention that large swaths of American Christianity accept the criticism that Obama is too weak militarily!). This leads to the thought that the main thing that’s wrong with progressive Christianity is that it has not separated itself enough from the Christian tradition’s Constantinianism.
Green biblical ethics
We went to a great session on “Ecological Hermeneutics.” This was a SBL session, and the focus was on the Bible. Two of the three papers were especially strong in providing biblical/theological for work for ecological wholeness. Ellen Davis did a Bible-wide reading of green theology and Ched Myers did a closer reading of the Old Testament prophets using the “cedars of Lebanon” as a motif that displays the ways of empire that corrupted ancient Israel and continue to corrupt our current scene.
I found the third paper quite a bit less satisfactory. Norman Habel is a senior OT scholar from Australia who justly is treated reverently for his pioneering work in ecological readings of the Bible. His paper was clear and though-provoking. But I was disappointed in how he sought to read the Bible in the worst possible light (in marked contrast with Davis and Myers—the contrast was probably less obvious because Habel went first and his methodological moves may have been forgotten in light of the latter two papers).
Habel isolated several different perspectives within the biblical account from each other, treating the OT as a series of discrete viewpoints rather than as a single story that brings together (if not in complete harmony) various perspectives into a (loosely) coherent whole. Davis especially gave us a good sense of this whole. With this approach, Habel made some questionable interpretive moves that, ironically, would give comfort to the James Watt school of reading the Bible in relation to environmental issues (Watt being Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior who presented the Bible as supporting human exploitation of nature). Habel’s moves were, of course, intended to de-legitimize the anti-earth biblical emphases he sees there—whereas Watt embraced those emphases. I think we’re better off with Davis’s and Myers’s approaches that challenge readings that see the Bible as anti-earth.
This session linked with several of the other sessions in provoking thought about whether we are better off to see the Bible as a friend of social transformation and pro-peace and pro-green approaches to life. Or should we mainly see the Bible as a problem we must overcome in order to work at social transformation?
Gordon Kaufman as pacifist—and the future of Mennonite theology
Definitely the emotional highlight for Kathleen and me was the session in tribute to Gordon Kaufman. Several of Kaufman’s former students and others who are experts in his theology presented papers analyzing the significance of his work. These were all strong, especially those by Jerome Sonenson and Myriam Renaud.
Then the discussion turned almost wake-like where people shared personal and intellectual memories and affirmations. This was a healing time for many of us who continue to grieve the death of a friend and mentor. Though, as would be expected in this kind of setting, the positive was accentuated to the near exclusion of strong challenges to Kaufman’s work, I found just about everything that was said to ring true to my experience of Kaufman.
However, no one mentioned anything about Kaufman’s pacifist commitment. Thus near the end of the session, Kathleen asked about that. Happily, Kaufman’s close friend and longtime Harvard Divinity School colleague Francis Schüssler Fiorenza was there and immediately stood and talked about how central Kaufman’s pacifism indeed was to his theology.
Maybe the main thought I came out of this session with was how important it is for Mennonite theology (if there is to be such a thing) to learn from Kaufman. In my mind, I started formulating a paper on Kaufman and John Howard Yoder (actually, an expansion of an earlier blog post). I think these two seminal thinkers were both profoundly shaped by their Mennonite heritage—in ways that on the surface seem quite distinct but, I would argue, in deeper ways are similar. I think we need to lift up their common ground and then see it as the basis for constructing our distinctively Mennonite theology. The alternative seems to be that Mennonites simply find themselves absorbed into broader Christian theologies of various stripes.
The pro-choice case
For the first time at the AAR, we attended a session devoted to the explicit articulation of the ethical case for the pro-choice position in relation to abortion. This session celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Beverly Harrison’s book Our Right to Choose (sadly, Harrison was not able to be present).
These were strong papers that mutually reinforced each other. There was nothing of the detached observer stance in this session; these were pro-choice advocates. They all focused on the pregnant woman’s experience of unwanted pregnancy and the difficulties presented by anti-abortion policies and ideologies. It was refreshing to hear such an unabashed emphasis on this aspect of the issue, since we don’t get it in many other settings.
Though these were religion scholars (and two are professors at Christian seminaries), we didn’t get much theological reflection. The focus was pretty strictly on public policy issues and women’s experiences.
While I am almost completely sympathetic with the views I heard, I ended up a little disappointed. I can think of at least two themes I wish had been discussed more (or at all). Several speakers alluded to what I would call an “abortion reduction strategy,” but nothing like this phrase was used and the allusions were only scattered. I think pro-choice advocates should make much more of a point that the broad policy directives they support would actually lead to far fewer abortions than the policies of the anti-abortion advocates (by leading to far fewer unwanted pregnancies). I didn’t get a sense that any of these speakers have spent much time figuring out how to find common ground with (the more sane and sincerely pro-life) anti-abortion advocates. Emphasizing their support for an abortion reduction strategy could do so.
The second theme would have been much more theological/philosophical. I am learning in my undergrad ethics class (I plan to write a longer post on this soon) that the assumption about human life (in the sense of deserving full human rights) beginning at conception is crucial for the attractiveness of the anti-abortion position. One speaker at our session asserted that pro-choice advocates must avoid discussion of when life begins for strategic reasons. I suspect this is an admission of weakness. I wonder if ultimately, the issue must be addressed on this level if the growing influence of the anti-abortion movement is to be successfully resisted.
I don’t have a worked out position on the issue of when “human life” begins. But I am becoming convinced that as long as the growing assumption that it begins at conception remains unchallenged, the anti-abortion view will continue to win the day. I wonder if by focusing strictly on the mother’s right to choose and on the anti-women and anti-sex elements of the anti-abortion movement (things which of course should be emphasized, but not to the exclusion of the when-does-life-begin issue), pro-choice advocates leave unaddressed the aspect of the anti-abortion view that has the most appeal. I was disappointed this kind of question did not emerge at all in this session.
Our final session was probably the most disappointing. We went to a panel that was supposed to discuss the book, Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude by Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan, and that featured responses from the two authors.
While the speakers and audience questioners told many inspiring stories of their own activism, they left the main content of the book unaddressed. We wondered if what we witnessed was an example of the narcissism of social activists that reflects their self-absorption and renders theological and philosophical reflection on foundational issues quite difficult.
Maybe part of our lack of appreciation for this session was that we had reached a saturation point and were anticipating our exhausting trip home (we got to our house at 3 a.m. on Tuesday).
But, overall, a most stimulating long weekend. We’re looking forward to next year in Baltimore—more so because the one distasteful aspect of these events, the air travel, will not be necessary.