As I have begun to receive comments on my recent book Freedom of the Self, one of the questions I have had is for follow-up reading – people who are tilling the same soil I am seeking to work in bringing together continental philosophy, Christian mysticism, and a deep concern for the contemporary accelerated culture within which live in Western culture.  One of the books I point people to right away is Peter Rollins’ 2006 book How (Not) to Speak of God. It is a dense wee book filled with amazing insights from Rollins work in the academy as a research associate at the Trinity School of Ecumenics in Dublin (he holds a PhD in Post-Structual Thought from Queen’s University, Belfast) and has kept that scholarly reflection in tension alongside faith communities such as a collective in North Ireland  he founded called ‘ikon’ that in true Emergent spirit is a blended presence of live music, visual imagery, soundscapes, theatre and ritual in an act of what Rollins terms ‘transformance art’.

One cannot read Rollins’ book without seeing the role that irony has played and currently plays in contemporary thought be it theological or culturally embedded.    It has been said that irony is the final trope of theology – that the literal assertion of any theological proposition be it creedal, hermeneutical, or

experiential is ultimately radically undone in the face of its practical outworking given the inherent limits certainty has on things of faith.  Kierkegaard’s famous aphorism that “it is the objective label ‘God’ that ultimately negates the subject” or Martin Heidegger’s grand pronouncement “Das Heilige läßt sich überhaupt nicht ‘theologisch’ ausmachen, denn […] immer dort, wo die Theologie aufkommt, [hat] der Gott schon die Flucht begonnen” (“Wherever theology comes up, God has been on the run for quite a while”) both resonate with the notion of irony as a grand theological trope.  In short, you can’t box up the gift you really want after all…

In Rollins’ book, the place of theological irony is not overtly labeled per se but (rather ironically I might add) is deeply implied throughout.  Rollins lays claim to this tradition in his introduction (ironically subtitled “the secret” given that Rollins quickly notes that there is no secret) by citing Wittgenstein’s final sentence in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (xiii)    As Rollins further argues throughout Part 1 of the book, the tradition of ‘naming’ God has de-evolved into a practice of ‘heretical orthodoxy’ where authenticity in relation to God is falsely boundaried by theoretical constraints born after the Enlightenment where God is only apprehended ideologically vis a vis a disembodied theology.   Here Rollins chooses conversation partners amidst the ‘Masters of Suspicion’ (Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx) and seeks to embrace a way of approaching God that acknowledges that “one of the central elements of the postmodern critique, namely the recognition that relativism (i.e. the claim that there is no meaning) is ultimately self-contradictory, for to say there is no meaning to the universe is itself a meaningful statement, as it makes a meaningful claim about the way that the universe really is.” (11) The path upon which Rollins ventures is a contemporary recovery of the apophatic tradition.

Rollins appeals to the work of Pseudo-Dionysus, Meister Eckhart and other mystics within the Christian faith by noting the challenge of naming God is perpetually bounded by kataphatic or positive language that would correspond with the procession of the divine out of itself into its manifestation in and as the cosmos, as opposed to apophatic or negative language would articulate the path of the created soul’s return to the unmanifest divine transcendence.

Simply put, kataphasis for Rollins has given way to what he terms ‘the idolatry of ideology’ where the primacy of validity given to ideological renderings of God is comparable to fashioning idols.  Conversely, the road of apophasis leads to a silence that continues to be anything but quiet since God desires to be known.  As Rollins concisely states, “revelation [of God] ought not to be thought of either as that which makes God known or as that which leaves God unknown, but rather as the overpowering light that renders God known as unknown.” (17)   What Rollins advocates as the via media – the middle way – through the constraints of kataphatic and apophatic extremes is what he terms “the third mile” or what philosopher and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas terms the way of eminence, where ‘naming God’ would bespeak the completion of the created soul’s return to God as the unmanifest source of the manifestation which the creature is.  This ‘third mile’ of eminence is for Rollins the way of orthopraxis (right action) in fulfillment of orthodoxy (right belief) .  Referring to Jesus’ teaching that “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles, this way of God is a movement of procession where the transcendent cause shows itself transcendently embodied in the cosmos whose procession it is.  As Hans von Balthasar has put it long ago, in the kataphatic mode of theology, emphasis is placed on the “manifestation of the unmanifest.”   As immanent to all creation, God “has the name of everything that is” and “the theologians praise it by every name”.   In this regard Rollins agrees yet calls our naming/theology to be incarnate/praxiological.  Rollins makes clear that it is only in going this ‘third mile’ – which he reframes later as going from ‘knowledge’ (orthodoxy) to ‘love’ (orthopraxy) – fulfills the meaning of theology into superabundance.  In this way the Christian path is one that moves beyond mere ethics “[f]or ethical systems allow us to follow rules whether we love or not.  While ethics says, ‘What must I do in order to fulfill my responsibility?’ love says, ‘I will do more than is required.’  (65)  Rollins concludes his book with a number of rituals and liturgies that provide typologies for performing this ‘third mile’ in the midst of marginalized and silenced communities.   As I mentioned earlier, there is a level of irony in the writing of this book – the seeking to unname God in order that God may be made known as a project that ‘names’ the unnaming as such in print.  That said, I commend How (Not) to Speak of God to those seeking a confessional approach to this deep tradition of theological irony and apophasis and perhaps finding means to (re)new ways for services of worship that give voice to those silenced as well as those seeking the name of God as one ‘unnamed’.


To escape the Seattle heatwave, my daughters took me to see “Toy Story 3” last night (air conditioning and a good flick beat sitting in our house that was reaching 90 degrees upstairs).  I had read quite a few reviews and heard that Pixar really hit the ball over the back field fence in completing the Toy Story trilogy and this was certainly the case.  My friend Jeff Overstreet – author and movie critic – mentioned that he has never seen an American film trilogy that had each film continually exceed the previous film with each new release like the Toy Story franchise has done.   I still hold the first one in highest esteem, but will have to say that the maturity of Toy Story 3 and (dare I say it) humanity with which the film raised the bar for choosing loyalty, compassion, and ultimately stating in no uncertain terms that (akin to 1 Corinthians 13) without love everything else in this life is not worth living for was masterfully done.  I won’t go into the film’s plot beyond saying what has been generally revealed in press releases:  the story begins with Andy – the owner of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and all the other assorted toys – coming of age as he “puts away the things of childhood” and readies himself to move out of his home and go off to college.  Through a series of missteps, our cohort of toys are separated from Andy and end up at Sunnyside Daycare and enter into the Mattel and Hasbro equivalent of Shawshank prison.  It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination (this is still a Disney movie after all) to guess that there will be a reunion with our fearless action figures and their owner, but what happens is what takes this movie from being a thing of mere multiplex and into the realm of Gospel proclamation.

(NOTE:  SPOILER ALERT – STOP READING *HERE* IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING OF THE FILM!)

As Andy prepares to finally take his leave of his mother and his childhood home, the toys watch from the concealment of a cardboard box as Andy’s mother hugs her son and tells him (to paraphrase) that she has to let him go so that she will always have a part of him with her.  In short, Andy’s mother makes the move I am arguing for in Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads in that what constitutes the kenotic self as the defining mark of followers of Christ in the world is this: in order to fulfill the mandate of love at its deepest and most abiding, we must relinquish that which we wish to hold on to the most… for only in the freedom and risk of love is it actually alive and not idolatry.

The toys – especially Woody – see this exchange and take the risk of love as well.  Packing themselves up neither to be mothballed in the attic nor to be archived on a shelf in Andy’s dorm room as a token of childhood, the toys are given away to another generation.  As Andy sits on the lawn of a young girl at the end of the film with his toys at his feet, his car sitting in the middle of ‘the road less traveled by’ and idling ready to head off into adulthood, he takes a moment to lament and grieve these physical markers of his youth with this new owner.  Rather than merely doing a “dump and run” of donated goods, Andy ‘stories’ each toy into life for her – telling her their name, how he liked to play with them, even evoking the voices he gave them.  But if this was just a ‘telling’ then we would have merely a hand off from one person to another without any connection.  No, what Pixar does next in why so many bloggers and reviewers have outed themselves as getting misty-eyed at this end of this seemingly benign animated film.  Andy doesn’t merely tell her about the toys and his experience… he plays with her and allows her to own these toys in her imagination and the way she needs to understand them.  They leap around the lawn, zooming in and out of make believe scenes – an older college bound boy and a young girl finding a common language and tying their lives together that seems so simple and care free and yet exhibiting the hunger to make connect that is lost in the age of Twitter.  By relinguishing his stories, his sense of play, and his love for these toys, Andy is not only giving this young girl new toys – he has reminded himself of the meaning of love as a freedom to release and remember.  As Andy drives off down the road, we are left with not only a new chapter in the lives of Woody, Buzz and the rest… but a calling to what it means in this life to not grasp and control but to truly give and receive love as free people.

In the end, Toy Story will be remembered as one of the most human trilogies on film and a call to us all to seek after a repose of relinquishment and release for the sake of love that will take us to “infinity and beyond.”

Friends – my new book Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads is about to be published and I have a web deal for you.  The book will be available July 1st but won’t be up on Amazon and other sites for a few more weeks.  My publisher has a “web deal” price of $16.80 if you order directly from the URL I am providing.  Feel free to pass it around to those interested in picking it up:

http://wipfandstock.com/store/Freedom_of_the_Self_Kenosis_Cultural_Identity_and_Mission_at_the_Crossroads

The gist of the book is fairly basic:  what it means to be a “self” in the world has been co-opted by the extremes of self-help gurus on the one hand who tell us that everything should feed our ego (“be all that you can be”, “you deserve a break today”, etc.)  and those who feel the individualism of culture is so problematic that community should be everything and the self either ignored or dismissed.   What I strike out to do in this book is reclaim what it means to have identity – to be a self – in this age after modernity and point toward a model of being and having identity through a model of what I call “the kenotic self”.    As the book jacket says:  “Freedom of the Self revitalizes the question of identity formation in a postmodern era through a deep reading of Christian life in relation to current trends seen in the Emergent and Missional church movements. By relocating deep identity formation as formed and released through a renewed appraisal of kenotic Christology coupled with readings of Continental philosophy (Derrida, Levinas, Marion) and popular culture, Keuss offers a bold vision for what it means to be truly human in contemporary society, as what he calls the “kenotic self.” In addition to providing a robust reflection of philosophical and theological understanding of identity formation, from Aristotle and Augustine through to contemporary thinkers, Freedom of the Self suggests some tangible steps for the individual and the church in regard to how everyday concerns such as economics, literature, and urbanization can be part of living into the life of the kenotic self.”

The book moves between philosophy and theology in the first section but doesn’t keep its head in the proverbial clouds.  The second section of the book – The Space of the Self – is a how-to discussion ranging from economics (what role does spending play in our sense of self?) urbanization (what does being a self mean in today’s urban neighborhoods?) and the role that the Christian church can and should play in the world exemplifying what I am terming “missional openness” to others.

If you click through the URL above, you can read some of the reviews for the pre-release copy if you are curious.  But my hope is to get a conversation going with you and hear ways this model of “the kenotic self” can play out in your communities and how “missional openness” can challenge some of the fortress mentality that is crippling so many faith communities including those in Emergent and Missional models (I spend quite a bit of time both affirming the Emergent and Missional movements but also critiquing them).

Blessings and peace my friends – would love to have your feedback and please pass the URL to those you might think enjoy these themes and conversations.

But wait… there’s more!  Also you can get 40% off the retail price with the promo code BSCB10 – that bumps the price down to $12.60!

Some of you know that I have been working on a book project looking at the nature of “kenosis” in Christian identity formation.  “Kenosis” is a Greek term taken from Phil. 2:7, where Christ is spoken of as having “emptied himself” (NRSV) as the true mark of what constitutes humanity. There has been much discussion about this entire crucial passage (2:6 – 11), and the scholarship surrounding the exegetical history of the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2 is expansive.  While I will be referring to a number of key works, this book primarily explores the philosophical and theological questions that arise from the Kenotic tradition as they inform theological anthropology or the question of ‘being human’.  In addition to the many texts that will be cited throughout the book, recent texts that have  particularly informed this study are C. Stephen Evans’ recent edited volume Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self Emptying of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Michael Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), and Kevin Cronin Kenosis: Emptying Self and the Path of Christian Service (London: Continuum, 2005).   The chapters in the book offer readers new conversation partners from the breadth and width of human reflection on what it means to be human and with these conversations partners I will offer a theological method for kenotic identity formation – a means and discipline to remain aware and open hearted to what the Kenotic life can be reimagined as.  The contours of this reimagined life will look at the re-framing of the deeply lived life by both internal (seen in the model of St. Augustine) and external (as seen in the work of Aristotle) concerns, radically decentered in location (as seen in the challenge of French theorist Jacques Derrida), found in the face of the other (seen in the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas), and ‘given’ rather than taken (as seen in the Catholic theologian Jean Luc Marion).

The challenge of writing a book is more than the research and putting proverbial pen to paper… it is knowing who you are writing for and speaking in a way that can be grabbed onto by the intended reader.

One of the things that has been difficult is finding this perfect pitch given the subject matter.  I have called the book “The Kenotic Self”  but have found from those who have looked at a draft of the proposal that the jargon may be off-putting.

My latest title:

k(no)w (you)r(self): The Missing Art of Being K(no)wn in Christianity

Thoughts?

I am reading David Walsh’s The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence right now and am just thunderstruck with how clean, concise and thoughful he is.  A fantastic read and truly a must for my continental geek friends out there.

Here is a great takeaway on the nature of Faith as Walsh reflects on the legacy of Søren Kierkegaard:

Faith is always in what we cannot know.  It is not merely a substitute for knowledge, but is of an utterly different order from knowledge.  What is known is over or possessed; what is believed is lived.  So it is precisely the nonpossibility of knowledge that constitutes faith and existence.  Just as the ideas of philosophy had become the principal barrier to the life of philosophy, the historical doctrines of Christianity had become the main obstacle to the life of Christianity.

Is Walsh arguing for an abandonment of the tradition and history of the Christian church?  No – I think in many ways this is his attempt to recapture the very intention of the ecumenical councils that have somehow become lost in the early years of the 21st cenutry.   As he states so well – what is truly believed is lived.  It becomes that simple.  To merely articulate beliefs without living them out is to plunge into a disembodied pit of reason without recourse, affirmation of so-called truth without the evidence of truthfulness in time and space.

I will be chiming in on this reading journey in the weeks to come from time to time.  Worth picking up fer sure!

Recently I was poking around on wordpress.com (the new home for the blogsite) and checking out other blogs about religion.  The introduction to the ‘blogs about’ section on wordpress.com for ‘religion’ has the following statement of purpose:

One of the many gods and goddesses the ancient Aztecs of Mexico worshipped was Cihuacoatl. Her temple was dedicated to soldiers and mothers who died in childbirth, which makes sense — both are warriors, in their own way. While the world’s most common religions tend to get most of the media’s attention (often for political or even violent reasons), the diversity and creativity of human spirituality is incredibly challenging to suppress. Our beliefs form our identities; therefore, we hang on tenaciously.

I like the emphasis on ‘identity formation’ as a core concern for what constitutes religious faith, but the emphasis on human beings is what I find increasingly troubling.  I mean, is the only reason (even the primary reason) that people have a religious faith is to figure out who WE are?

I suppose this brings us back to Immanuel Kant and his grand reversal of the subject – object.   Prior to Kant, human beings were the object of consideration of God what is the subject of all things – that which gives and sustains meaning.  Kant argued (rather successfully) that this the roles are reversed:  we as human beings are the subject that consider and ultimately sustain the reality of objects in the world of which God is one such ‘object’.  In this way, as with the definition above, we ‘hang tenaciously to the objects such as ‘God’ only for the sake of our so-called identity.   I just think there is more to it than that.  Sure, I am as much an egotist as the new person, but I have been awakened to a world much larger than myself and certainly larged than I can adequately reason and ‘even imagine’.

In the Hindu scriptures, there is a wonderful story of  the demon of egotism (Mamāsura) who had attacks Gaṇeśa Vighnarāja (the elephant headed God familiar to many).  In order to defend and overcome the onslaught of Mamāsura, Gaṇeśa Vighnarāja throws his lotus blossom at him. Unable to bear the fragrance of the divine flower, the demon surrenders to Gaṇeśa.

Perhaps we need to ‘consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air’ (Matthew 6: 25-33) as Jesus suggested in the Sermon of the Mount. a bit more time outside of OUR heads and perhaps we can realize that who WE are isnt nearly as important nor foundational as we think.