As some of you on Facebook might know, I am now at a conference in Oxford where I presented a paper on continental theorist Slavoj Žižek.  For some, the name Žižek is unknown and yet in the philosophical community he is causing vibrant conversations that both infuriate and enliven debates on, well, just about everything.

My interest with Žižek is that as a leading Leftist theorist he seems to be one of the most astute defenders of Christianity working today.  Granted, as a Lacanian Marxist some might expect a neo-Nietzschean or typical post-Marxist critique of Christianity. But Žižek doesn’t crush Christians with a Twilight of the Gods pounding of the Nietzschean hammer by dismissively erecting a straw man argument through neo-marxist rhetoric subscribing to Christians a ‘slave morality’ or becoming addicted to an ‘opiate for the masses’ then dismissing ‘faith’ with a wave of the hand (although he does do a lot of hand waving!).  No, true belief is something Žižek is concerned about (more about that later).

According to Žižek, the misguided ethical convictions and corresponding lack of political courage to do what is good and right that forms the trends with today’s Western intellectual elites have facilitated the spread of a global corporatism that benefits a relatively small economic élite at the cost of the world’s oppressed masses. With a decidedly ironic twist, Žižek declares that the pharmacon (the Derridian cura anima that gives both life and death) needed to combat this exploitative New World Order is found in what (in The Puppet and the Dwarf) he calls “the perverse core of the Christian faith” which provides the remedy for the cultural malady that is postmodern ethical relativism.  This perverse core is a deep concern for the material and the particular as the place of the universal ground for meaning.  He essentially sees much of the crisis in our culture today as a crisis of true belief.  As he puts it:

“What we are getting today is a kind of suspended belief, a belief that can thrive only as today is a kind of “suspended” belief, a belief that can thrive only as not fully (publicly) admitted, as a private obscene secret.  Against this attitude, one should insist even more emphatically that the “vulgar” question “Do you really believe or not?” matters – more than ever, perhaps.  My claim here is not merely that I am a materialist through and through, and that the subversive kernel of Christianity is accessible also to a materialist approach; my thesis is much stronger: this kernel is accessible only to a materialist approach – and vice versa: to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience.” (Puppet and the Dwarf, p. 6)

Žižek identifies various contemporary methods of what some may consider belief in the 21st century – grounding concerns that range from Western forms of New Age paganism to deconstructionism – and sees many of these as merely flaccid and fainting wanderings that have little to no effect on how one lives in the world with courage and resolve and that fact that ultimately most people in Western culture believe in nothing except free market capitalism remains what he states in The Puppet and the Dwarf as a “private obscene secret” of our age.

One of the reasons for this “private obscene secret” in Western culture stems from the repose of Postmodern culture to keep everything at a distance and commit ourselves to only considered reflections of so-called belief not a material, embodied enactment that animates in lived experience. Žižek’s examples of this range from post-structural thinkers in the academy out of the Derridian and Levinasian schools who take the burden of belief off of themselves and place it on the never-ending search for “the Other” to those people in big popular media (think: television personalities with white boards ), mega church pastors of a certain stripe, and those privatized Bohemians at the coffee shop who frame the world with bracketed comments within scare quotes that feigns objectivity .  Such groups, differing though they may seem,  are in fact sharing a deep virus that has spread to both conservative and liberal wings.  This is an inability to truly and completely live into belief. Although the groups will say that they are deeply self-reflexive and therefore needing to hold an objective view, Žižek zeroes in especially on the intellectual elites (yes… he is targeting the academy within which he receives large paychecks… but the man is not without irony) for an anti-foundationalism that constantly resists positing a conceptual totality on the grounds that such thinking risks becoming totalitarian. In short, people talk a lot, blog endlessly, fill our ears and eyes with media and after the tidal wave of information overload most people still lack a belief in anything that substantially effects their day-to-day lives other than the desire to shop.  As a result of their supposed open-mindedness and egalitarian spirit, those in Western culture from the intellectual élite to the reality show celebrity to the Barista pulling your cappuccino this morning (these, by the way, are not mutually exclusive categories) neglect to take into account their unwillingness to subject themselves to a grounding fundamental belief.

Žižek cites New Age paganism in the Puppet and the Dwarf as merely seeing the universe as a ‘primal abyss in which all apparent opposites ultimately coincide’ – a view that offers no accountability for how one is to live in relation to other human beings nor the responsibility to do so. Those he calls ‘Deconstructionists’ after Derrida and Levinas are similar in that this class of intellectuals “has become almost the hegemonic ethico-spiritual attitude of today’s intellectuals… [grounding their views in] the assertion of Otherness leads to the boring, monotonous sameness of Otherness itself.”  The so-called tolerant resolve whereby ‘otherness’ is held up as an unknowable alterity is a blanding of the particular and leaves people kept at arm’s length rather than embraced and results in all particular instances of the so-called other that arise in our day-to-day interactions with increasing globalization are just variations sameness, a Lockean tabula rasa that is beyond our comprehension to master and therefore we cannot offer opinion nor deep connection.  In particular for Žižek is a concern for those who espouse multiculturalism as the highest ideal which when enacted as a call to stay open to a radical Otherness merely encourages passivity in our encounters with others that ultimately translates into political apathy or inaction.  This, Žižek states in no uncertain terms, is about as far from true belief as we can get.

Where to I go with Žižek on all this?  Well, probably to places he would find a bit too ‘touchy feely’ but still in line with large parts of his attempt to revive lost aspects of the Christian narrative.  What the perverse core of Christianity as he describes it offers is a grand counter measure to these tendencies to abstraction and is a call to true belief that seeks after the particular to know the universal – that is to say, to have courage to live in relation to marginalized, the disenfranchised, the person who is our neighbor which purpose and resolve in a deeply real way.  It means getting involved with each other, knowing our names, and drawing dangerously close in ways that can break our hearts and shatter our precious beliefs from time to time.  In keeping the world abstracted and objective, we keep God at bay as well.

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’.


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!

There is something I need to get off my back.   One of the topics I realized recently that I haven’t dialogued about on the blog is where I find myself theologically – in short, what I believe about God.  People I am around are usually trending toward one of three vectors:

(1) Those for whom some abstracted religious exploration animates their everyday life and touches on some aspect or combination of themes drawn from fairly traditional religious traditions.  In this I am fortunate beyond belief to have such a wide range of friends and colleagues who represent just about every imaginable belief system under the sun: atheists, religious libertarians, agnostics, fundamentalists of every stripe, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, reformed and orthodox Jews, and one friend who calls herself a Zoroastrian but only because she didn’t know what else to put in the “religious views” section of her Facebook profile and thought it sounded cool.

(2) Another group of folks would be the majority of the people I swim around with day to day:  people who would call themselves Christians of one persuasion or another: cultural and devote Catholics, liturgically geeky Lutherans, heady Pentecostals, loads of Methodists of every stripe, herds of self-described non-Denominational folks and Evangelical types, and thoughtfully Biblio-centric Episcopalians who dig on KEXP.org, the Bible, and vestments that smell of incense.

(3)  The last group are a jumble sale of secularists of every stripe – those blissfully indifferent to spiritual things (“whatever floats your boat”) or product-centric consumers enraptured with the transcendence of buying things where the warehouse sales  and 1-click web purchases take the luminous place of grand cathedrals and daily devotions due for the pious or politicos whose sense of justice and human potential is best met in Ira Glass aphorisms, reading Harpers in indie cafes, and populating FB status updates with stump quotes linked to key broadsheet periodicals.

No one is a purist in this life and all who find home in Western culture is tainted (for better or worse) by all three vectors – religious seeking writ wide and abstract, the blessing and curse of Christianity’s dominance in culture, and secularism found in government, consumerism and indifference ebbs and flows through most everyone life.

I too am a composite located in the midst of these vectors – a theological geocache of sorts – and yet still frame much of my heritage around my work as a theologian and, more specifically, a Presbyterian.  This Scottish tradition of the Reformation holds a particular view on Christianity and culture at large.

Much of why I am a member of the PC (USA) is summed up in the following three areas of theological focus – the three ‘C’s of Presbyterianism:

I. Christ centered – meaning making finds its center in the Christ event

Presbyterians have a theology that places all of life in the hands of God.  While this is in no way distinctive in the religious marketplace, the notion and vital position of God’s sovereignty is the cornerstone of Reformed Theology after John Calvin and a key orienting concern for my tradition.  The geocache of this is the movement of God’s reconciling presence within humanity through the incarnate life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe that God is intimately involved in the details of daily human life as seen in the incarnate Christ (Emmanuel = God with us) and continuing the in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We recognize how easy it is for people to place idols of all kinds in the place of God (Calvin called human beings “idol making factories”), to worship many things before the worship of God. As a result of this assertion, Presbyterians hold that humanity has a predilection to sinful behavior – a desire to be isolated and removed from God (Sinatra’s “I’m going to do it my way” is the modern version of John Milton’s notion of Satan’s fall from grace framed in the exclamation “it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven”). However, the truth of this is not the entirety of our lot in this life:  at the same time humanity strives toward isolation Presbyterians assert that we also hold that humanity is loved and forgiven by God in ways that are inexplicable, undeserved and utterly surprising. God’s grace  is the cause of our daily renewal and therefore we – all of humanity – is invited to live in the fullness of hope and mercy regardless of our desire to be in isolation.  All we have to do is accept the invitation to love – to be loved and to return this love with an intimacy that is found between where a vine grows and binds itself to a branch. In all of this, as the reformer Martin Luther described himself, Presbyterians hold that we are “justus et peccator”, “made righteous and yet a sinner.”

Presbyterians ground much of our thinking in this regard in our structure of governance – that if how we choose to worship, to gather in community, to support one another, to love the world and sacrifice for the sake of others.  Where some Christian sub-traditions are named and therefore framed around a personality (John Wesley for Wesleyans, Martin Luther for Lutherans) – Presbyterians are akin to Episcopalians and Catholics by framing the tradition around its governance structure.  One document that holds us accountable to is the Book of Order which articulates these key theological values: God alone is the Lord of the conscience. That is, people, being prone to error, are going to be wrong a good portion of the time. Conscience cannot be coerced by any human agency, but only persuaded by God. All power in a Christian body, we believe, is persuasive.

Another way that Presbyterians keep this Christ centeredness core is through worship that is renewed yet traditional – we worship together using new music and old music, new prayers and old prayers, new ways and old ways, using the freedom given to us by our Book of Order.  Preaching and teaching is a big deal and for some Presbyterians get a bit heady in their worship services.  Education has always been a high value from the Scottish reformation (Scotland has four universities founded in the later medieval period while England had only two) and as such this is a tradition that places a high value on preaching that stimulates our minds and moves our hearts, instructs as well as inspires.

Presbyterians are a ‘big tent’ tradition in that we hold (as our system gives us the freedom to hold) a variety of views on scriptural authority and theology, yet we are one community, united around the grace and love of God demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  One of the things I greatly appreciate is how diverse our tradition is… even when it is difficult to be in the same room together.  Yet isn’t that how family is?

II. Creedal

Presbyterians govern themselves by a constitution, based on our Reformed theology that gives  us direction and insight for doing things “decently and in order.” This constitution contains the historic and ecumenical confessions of faith of the church from the earliest days of Christianity (The Book of Confessions) including the Apostles and Nicene Creeds which join us to the Church universal.  This creedal affirmation is not to replace Scripture nor denounce our personal and corporate experiences of God, but likened to a lens, it gives us clarity in reading the fullness of our lives and only helps to frame the Scriptures and traditions of the Church better.  This also is to help frame the rules for the day to day business of being the church outlined in the The Book of Order which I mentioned previously.

III. Connectional

Lastly, Presbyterians do not try to be the church all on our own in their local gatherings, but are connected together in a web of relationships that extends accountability to the larger church. Likened to concentric rings emanating outward from a rock hitting the water that once they hit the shore return in waves back toward the center, our sense of community in local churches reaches out to the larger family of believers and the larger collective is always viewing its business in light of the local congregation.  A collection of churches in a region are joined together as a Presbytery. Each congregation in the region sends its pastors and elects Elders to represent it at Presbytery meetings which occur every other month on average. As a Minister of the Word and Sacrament I serve as part of Seattle Presbytery and also participate in the life of my church – North Creek Presbyterian. A collection of Presbyteries in a region are joined together as a Synod. Each Presbytery sends elected pastors and Elders to represent it at Synod assemblies and there is a nationwide General Assembly to which each Presbytery sends elected pastors and Elders to represent it (the General Assembly – or GA – is occurring in July 2010).   Rather than a system of endless committees and administrative nightmare (which some people see our church tradition as being… and at times guilty of!) this is a system that provides the means of accountability at all levels. There is always in place an approved method of dealing with disputes, complaints, unhappiness and inappropriate behavior by officers and/or members.

One of the things I celebrate most about the PC(USA) is that we have a form of government that encourages us to be the “Priesthood of all Believers.” We are a representative democracy, electing our leaders in administration, spirituality, and service on a regular basis. In fact, the form of government of the United States of America is based so heavily on the Presbyterian form of government that at the time of the Revolutionary War, the King of England was known to have called it the “Presbyterian rebellion.”

We are one of the few denominations that ordain lay people, thus placing our clergy and our laity on an absolutely equal footing. We ordain people to the office of Elder (or Presbyter, from the Greek) to be leaders in spirituality and administration. We ordain people to the office of Deacon to be leaders in service. We ordain people to the office of Pastor to be preachers, teachers, and administrators of the sacraments. We are a denomination that has ordained artists, writers and musicians to their respective callings for the service of God’s people. All our ordinations are equal and all are for life.  The fact that I serve a denomination that sees the manifold ministries of the Gospel broadly expressed and corporately supported in such incarnations as children’s television (Fred Rogers of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” was a PC(USA) minister) to novelists (Frederick Buechner) brings me joy.

What about you?

Where do you trend on these three vectors I described in the beginning?