My Thesis Proposal

Here it is: my completed thesis proposal, which I presented to the MTS colloquium here at Garrett a little over a week ago. This is a proposal for the direction my thesis is going, but does not lock me into anything. From here, my advisor and I will work towards narrowing and tweaking my ideas some more, before I start writing in earnest in the spring. I’ve already gotten great feedback from my peers and professors. I look forward to any feedback from you as well!

Tentative Title

A God Who Can Suffer and Die: Putting Moltmann’s Crucified God to Work in Rural America

Introduction

Rural white Americans are suffering from the effects of capitalism and white supremacy, at both an individual and a communal level. Alongside that suffering, many midwestern Protestant churches fail to address congregants’ suffering, despair and spiritual malaise. Attached to a message that is individualistic, enmeshed in secular conservative politics, and overly obsessed with status, success and serving as the arbiter of social status, these churches no longer espouse a theology that can provide meaningful answers to people in need of direction.

Instead, they channel their hurt and anger inwards, via self-loathing, depression and eventually, suicide and other forms of physical self-harm, or outwards, towards their families, their co-workers, or, at the ballot box, towards any “other” onto whom they can project their hurt onto. The growth of opioid and other addictions, domestic and gun violence, and suicide among white working class Americans over the last fifty years is striking. At the same time, the increasingly partisan and grievance-based politics practiced on the right, supported by white America, is also growing alarmingly.

While social problems, and racist, nationalistic politics have always been at play in American history, the strength of the white supremacist order allowed even disenfranchised and oppressed whites to feel that it was “their” system, that benefited them culturally, if not economically. Now, as a new, more inclusive political and social consensus is growing in America, and tearing at the seams of the White Supremacist order that has been in power since the founding of the nation, these working class whites no longer have the backstop of feeling, at the very least, superior to every black body they encounter by virtue merely of their race. As a result, white working class Americans are truly, for the first time, beginning to feel the effects, socially, politically and psychologically, of the dominant capitalist, white supremacist system in their own lives.

How, then, does the church, which was charged to carry on the mission of Christ to “proclaim the good news to the poor…proclaim liberty to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,” respond theologically to the cry of white working America? How does it create a space for their suffering to be heard, and for the energy generated by their pain, to be channeled in a direction that works to further the achievement of God’s kingdom for all people? What are some theological concepts that can be put to use to restore the dignity of white working class Americans, to redirect their gaze towards the real causes of systemic suffering and oppression, and to rekindle their hope of a better future for themselves and for the world?

Research Question

The tentative questions I am engaging at this point begin with “how does God relate to human suffering?” Obviously, the potential theological engagements with the topic of theodicy are almost infinite. Thus, in order to engage this question more manageably, I am asking the questions, “how does suffering manifest itself in my context of rural white working class people in the American Midwest?”, and “what theological concepts can be used to address the readily apparent suffering and hurt being felt by these people?” By focusing on my own personal context, and on the theological voice I find most compelling, I believe I can demonstrate my ability to engage theology and its application to the lived reality of people.

Literature Review

Obviously, I will engage a variety of works by Jurgen Moltmann himself. Primarily, I will rely on The Crucified God, Theology of Hope, and God in Creation. However, I will not restrict myself to these and will draw on a variety of his works from across his career.

Being one of the major theological voices of the twentieth century (and early twenty-first century), much has been written about and in response to Moltmann. I intend to draw upon the works of other theologians who have engaged his ideas. This includes works by Douglas Meeks, Ryan Neal, Nigel Goring Wright, Miroslav Volf, and Nicholas Ansell, among others. James Cone has also commented upon the works of Moltmann, especially in his Theology of Hope, and I intend to draw upon this work as well.

Moltmann has had immense influence in both the areas of liberation theology, and open and relational or process theology. I will draw upon works from both of these concentrations to round out my engagement with Moltmann himself. In discussing the concept of justice, as well, I will draw briefly on ideas from Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, and their idea of a capabilities approach.

Other theological voices that are prominent in my own thinking, and who will be present in shaping my writing, include especially Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. While much of their theology stands in contrast to Moltmann, the emphasis upon the church, and on Scripture as the normative standard for the Christian faith, deeply influence how I see Christianity working in the world.

Finally, drawing upon my previous training in political science and social science research methods, I will take a close look at the quantitative measures used to analyze poor white communities. This body of research will help me narrow my specific focus, to better define what I mean when I say rural white. As the community I grew up in, I know intuitively of whom and what I speak in my own mind, but for the purposes of academic work, in order to have some applicability and authority, I must define this group clearly.

Additionally, I will draw upon the large and growing body of social commentary written about poor rural whites, especially in the post-2016 world. This includes works by Nancy Isenberg, Carol Anderson, Francis Fukuyama, Sarah Smarsh, Sarah Kendzior, and JD Vance.

Methodology

In this thesis, I aim to make two major movements. First, I will begin by taking a close look at rural whites in the American Midwest, people who are primarily Protestant Christian, working or middle class, and who supported Donald Trump in 2016 and the subsequent politics on the right characterized by white nationalism and racial resentment, driven by the detrimental effects of late capitalism on their communities. While questions of economy and of identity are deeply intertwined, I will primarily focus on issues of identity, especially those of race, vocation, and gender roles. From this analysis, I plan to draw forth questions for theologians about how the modern application of theological concepts has left these people behind, and how their decreasing reliance on church shows the failure of the church and theology to speak meaningfully in this context.

Next, I will engage the work of Jurgen Moltmann, especially in the areas of theodicy and hope, to envision one strain of theology that could be put to work to restore dignity to rural whites and help to address the feelings of loss, dislocation, and anger they are experiencing. I hope to demonstrate that the solidaristic work of God on the Cross, through Christ, renders God relatable for a suffering humanity, replacing an immutable and distant God commonly conceived of in traditional theology. I also will show the potential for this understanding of a relatable and accessible God for churches, as it provides the theological space that allows people to feel heard, and their pain to be made known, worthy of addressing, and capable of being heeded. Finally, I will engage Moltmann’s thought on political and liberation theology to provide a vision for a communal healing in rural white communities that enables them to direct their pain and suffering in more constructive and hopeful directions, rather than destructive ways that target racial, sexual and ethnic groups. In short, in this final section, I want to engage questions of what justice realized would look like theologically for these communities.

In these two movements, I want to draw a connection between the real suffering, often ignored or discounted because of the toxic politics it leads to, of rural whites in America, and the work on theodicy and hope in Moltmann, in order to highlight the possibility of his theology being a tool that those who minister to these hurting people can use. While there are surely economic, social, and political solutions that can be brought to bear more effectively on these hurting communities, my work as a theologian is to bring my training in this field to this context which is home to me, and try to provide some answers that will “bind up the broken-hearted,” and do the work of bringing the Kingdom of God in this world.

I choose to engage Moltmann because, in my work so far as a theologian, no personality has been so formative in crafting my thinking and directing my passion for theology. Specifically, reading Moltmann’s The Crucified God spurred my deep interest in theodicy and questions of the relatability of God to the human reality of suffering. The work of Moltmann is the primary impetus that drove me to switch from pursuing parish ministry to academic theology, and I want to honor that drive in myself. Beyond my own personal affinity to Moltmann, I think his work can be an entry into liberation theologies for white working class churches, in a way that the equally important work of James Cone or Gustavo Gutierrez, for reasons of tone and intended audience.

Tentative Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Literature Review
  3. The Suffering of Rural Whites
    1. Defining the Context
    2. Quantifying the Situation
    3. What is happening in rural America?
  4. Moltmann’s Theology
    1. The Crucified God
      1. The Appropriation of Suffering
    2. A God who can relate
    3. Liberation and Hope
  5. The Crucified God in Rural America
    1. Helping the Church be the Church to its people
    2. What justice looks like
  6. Conclusion: Towards a White Liberation Theology

 

Tentative Timeline

I will complete all my classwork this fall, meaning in January and Spring 2019, I can focus all my energies on researching and writing. My tentative goals are to continue reading and researching through the end of January, and then do the bulk of writing between February and April.

Working Bibliography

Alexander, John M. Capabilities and Social Justice: The Political Philosophy of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing, 2008.

Ansell, Nicholas. The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jurgen Moltmann. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2013.

Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of Jurgen Moltmann. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995.

Cobb, John B. and David Ray Griffin. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.

Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation. 20th Anniversary Edition. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1990.

Deneen, Patrick J. Why Liberalism Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Eberhart, Timothy. Rooted and Grounded in Love: Holy Communion for the Whole Creation. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2017.

Fea, John. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2018.

Fukuyama, Francis. Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation. 15th Anniversary Edition. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988.

Guttesen, Poul F. Leaning Into the Future: The Kingdom of God in the Theology of Jurgen Moltmann and the Book of Revelation. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2009.

Hauerwas, Stanley. The Work of Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2015.

Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon. Resident Aliens. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989.

Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

Jones, Robert P. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.

McDougall, Joy Ann. Pilgrimage of Love: Moltmann on the Trinity and Christian Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Meeks, M. Douglas. Origins of the Theology of Hope. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974

Moltmann, Jurgen. The Crucified God. 40th Anniversary Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

Moltmann, Jurgen. God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

Moltmann, Jurgen. Creating a Just Future: The Politics of Peace and the Ethics of Creation in a Threatened World. London: SCM Press, 1989.

Moltmann, Jurgen. God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985.

Moltmann, Jurgen. Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

Moltmann, Jurgen. On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Muller-Fahrenholz, Geiko. The Kingdom and the Power: The Theology of Jurgen Moltmann. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Neal, Ryan A. Theology as Hope: On the Ground and Implications of Jurgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2008.

Oden, Patrick. The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jurgen Moltmann. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

Perkinson, James W. White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Reimer, A. James. Toward an Anabaptist Political Theology: Law, Order and Civil Society. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. America, Amerikkka: Elect Nation and Imperial Violence. London: Equinox, 2007.

Sample, Tex. Earthy Mysticism: Spirituality for Unspiritual People. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008.

Sample, Tex. White Soul: Country Music, the Church, and Working Americans. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Sample, Tex. Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus: Doing Ministry with Working Class Whites. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006.

Sample, Tex. Blue Collar Ministry: Facing Economic and Social Realities of Working People. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1984.

Smarsh, Sarah. Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke. New York: Scribner, 2018.

Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: Harper, 2016.

Wakefield, James L. Jurgen Moltmann: A Research Bibliography. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Wright, Nigel Goring. Disavowing Constantine: Mission, Church and the Social Order in the Theologies of John Howard Yoder and Jurgen Moltmann. Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2000.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1994.

Zoran Grozdanov, Ed. Theology – Descent into the Vicious Circles of Hell: On the Fortieth Anniversary of Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016.

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“The earthly city glories in itself”

In yesterday’s post about Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, I ended with a short discourse on the nature of sin as pride, drawing on Neibuhr, and relating to this moment in American political history. I just want to expand a bit on pride, by drawing on Augustine a bit, in the hopes of illuminating the point I was making a bit.

In Book XIV, near the very end, Augustine writes,

“We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter find its highest glory in God, the witness of a good conscience…The one city loves its own strength show in its powerful leaders; the other says to its God, ‘I will love you, my Lord, my strength.’

Consequently, in the earthly city its wise men who live by men’s standards have pursued the goods of the body or of their mind, or both. Or those of them who were able to know God ‘did not honor him as God, nor did they give thanks to him, but they dwindled into futility in their thoughts, and their senseless hear was darkened: in asserting their wisdom’ – that is, exalting themselves in their wisdom, under the domination of pride – ‘they became foolish…”

When Augustine writes here of the earthly city, we can think of the powers that be, in Washington DC and beyond, in order to gain some understanding. And when we make that move, it becomes clear that Augustine might either have had a glimpse into the future, or knew the tendencies of humanity all to well!

The political moment exemplified right now by Donal Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, and this whole sordid political regime can be discerned in words like “glories in itself,” “loves its own strength shown in its powerful leaders,” and “self-love reaching the point of contempt for God.” I don’t speak in this comparison of Trump’s overwhelming narcissism, lack of intellectual curiosity, or idolization of strength over weakness. I also am speaking of the rush by political leaders in the White House, Congress, and the media to ignore the cries of the oppressed, deny the claims of truth and right, and blindly confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, despite what he may or may not have done.

It is pure, unblinking pride that compels these men to ignore the pursuit of justice and truth and push forward so blindly for a political victory. They believe so deeply in their own wisdom, they have such deep wells of self-love, that they can no longer perceive the presence of God in the world. Pride has blinded them; through pride, “they became foolish.”

This isn’t to associate the demands of God with the goals of the Democrat Party in the nomination of Kavanaugh. Rather, this is pure critique of an entire system that is so fixated on a temporal political win in this moment. Augustine, and Neibuhr after him, identified the chief sin of humanity as pride, which masquerades as selfishness and self-love so often. Pride is the motive from which our leaders consistently work – and why identification of God with any political leader, party or nation is idolatrous and dangerous.

Believe Women. Expect More of Our Boys. Shelve Pride.

Two major narratives have emerged from the Christine Blasey Ford-Brett Kavanaugh hearings last Thursday (among many others.) They are this:

  • That Dr. Ford is credible and has clearly been hurt, but that she can’t have been hurt by Kavanaugh
  • And, that Kavanaugh was just another 17 year old boy, and we shouldn’t hold him accountable for things his younger self did almost 40 years ago.

Besides being two contradictory positions to hold simultaneously (how can he both have not done it, and also have been doing it in a “boys will be boys” manner?), these two talking points highlight some very disturbing ideas for how we conceive of how men and women are perceived in our culture still, despite the great forward advances made in women’s liberation and the feminist and #MeToo movements. Namely, we again see that men are believed and excused, while women are disbelieved and subject to their story being told for them anytime they challenge the patriarchal narrative at work in American culture.

#BelieveHer

Let’s start with Dr. Ford. Last week, she sat before Congress and the entire country, and told her story. She did not equivocate. She did not stutter, or stammer, or misremember, or come across as duplicitous or manipulative. She did not have anything to gain by exposing herself to the public in this way, but she did have a lot to lose.

And yet, she carried on, and she told her story, a story that received plaudits across the political divide. Both Republicans and Democrats praised her bravery and her honesty, lamenting what she has been through.

And yet, despite this bipartisan praise, despite the almost unanimous credulity afforded her, in the end, a political talking point won. Instead of belief in her story leading to action against the perpetrator of her assault, she was met with the response that she must have “misremembered,” that her memory failed her, that she could not accurately recall the boy who attacked her. Every part of her story, the pundits said, was believable – except the part where she named Brett Kavanaugh as her abuser.

This absurdly on-script example of mansplaining is almost too much to believe. This is the kind of thing you read only in SJW writings about patriarchy, right? These kind of blatant examples of willful disbelief of a woman are more example than reality, we think. But yet, here we are, with scores of Republican congressmen, and cable news talking heads, and everyday Americans, telling Dr. Ford that her story – her experience – is wrong, and that this is how it should be told instead.

This is exactly what the #MeToo movement, and feminism in general, has been trying to tell the world for decades. Consistently, women, especially abused women, have their stories dictated to them, and are told how to act, what reality actually is, and that they are wrong, in order to protect men. For too long, this is a major reason why millions of the abused haven’t come forward with their stories, because too often, when they do, they are told they are wrong, that they misremembered, that they must be mistaken, or that making an accusation will only make things worse.

It’s probably a sign of the cultural moment we’re in, when the patriarchal structures of society are finally being identified by people across the political and ideological spectrum, and real efforts to dismantle them are becoming part of the mainstream conversation, that this situation of abusive gaslighting has been so public and pronounced. What is happening, and our response to it, is simple: you cannot say Dr. Ford is believable and credible, that her story is true, and yet deny it’s central detail. You either believe her, or you don’t. You must decide which it is, and you must act accordingly.

Expect More of Our Boys

On the Kavanaugh side, even those who declare his innocence in the face of Dr. Ford’s testimony have latched onto this idea that this was just an example of “boys will be boys” behavior by a 17 year old. Consequently, they claim, even if he did do it, he really shouldn’t be punished for it all these years later.

This is highly problematic, on a number of levels. This concept of “Boys will be boys,” that teenage and college age men can get drunk and commit terrible acts and have it excused as somehow part of their nature as male human beings, is a really terrible standard to set for our boys. I know, as the father of a boy, that I expect so much more from him. I know he will mess up as a teenager and young man, that he will likely drink and make some bad decisions. I also expect him to generally do the right thing. I know that I, and his mother and his stepmother and his stepfather, will work all through his life to instill a strong set of values, centered around respect for others and for self, values we hope will ring strongly in his head when he is 17 and tempted to do something stupid. I also know, and expect, that if he makes bad decisions, he should be punished, not for punishments sake, but for his own growth, and for the benefits accrued to society through fair consequences administrated fairly and equitably to all people.

The evidence points to the fact that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford in 1982 at a party. He has never been held accountable for his actions. Further, he has repeatedly lied and dissembled, casting doubts on Dr. Ford and effectively gaslighting her. He has been given the benefit of the doubt time and time again, and he has never had any impediment to his climb up the rungs of power and prestige.

I’m sure that Kavanaugh is no longer the person he was at 17 years ago. I don’t doubt he’s a good father, and husband, and basketball coach, and a strong legal mind. But, he was never held to account for his actions. The appointment to a Supreme Court seat, after these revelations, would be a reward to him, a reward for his continued lying and dissembling.

But, it would also be a message to boys everywhere, that “boys will be boys” and they, too, can get away with acts of wrong, as long they are consistent enough in their lies and discrete enough that it can be swept under the rug for years and years. It is a message that, once again, these actions will not be taken seriously by our society, that the accumulation of power by men is more important than the right to a life free from abuse and assault by for women.

Further, it’s a message to women everywhere, that again, they don’t matter, that their stories are unbelievable, and unimportant. That no matter the advances made for women over the last decades, in the end, it means nothing practically.

Sin of Pride

Writing as a Christian and a theologian, this also strikes me as a moment of severe collective sin, a sin of pride that has continued to plague human society for centuries. We have elevated the rights and needs of men over and above those of women. We have built idols to the powerful men who run our society, excusing their behavior in almost all instances. We show through our actions as a society, especially if this confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh moves forward, that our own pride – pride in our own ability to set the rules of the game, pride in our ability to play God, pride in our ability to elevate some over others – has again overridden any sense of morality at work in our collective activity.

This sin of pride obscures our reliance on God. It tells Brett Kavanaugh, and all others like him, they are entitled to the honor they are receiving, the position they are holding, the power they are wielding. It tells them that they are powerful because they deserve it more than others, that they are in fact God, and thus accountability doesn’t apply to them. H. Reinhold Neibuhr captures this so well, when he writes, “Every one who stands is inclined to imagine that he stands by divine right…It is the man who stands, who has achieved, who is honored and approved by his fellowmen who mistakes the relative achievements and approvals of history for a final and ultimate approval.”

Inordinate self-regard – pride – is the source of this moment. It is pride that tells us that we know better than Dr. Ford what happened to her. It is pride that tells men like Brett Kavanaugh that they don’t have to face the consequences of their actions. We are all complicit, as long as we each continue to downplay the power of patriarchy and mysogony in our society. This pride will be our downfall, as we arrogate more power to ourselves and refuse to acknowledge our limitations finitude.

We have to expect more of our boys. We have to believe women. We have to. We have to.