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 Church is Not Just Another Social Service Agency

What we call the “church” is too often a gathering of strangers who see the church as yet another “helping institution” to gratify further their individual desires. – Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Resident Aliens, pg 138

100114residentaliensThis line from the excellent book Resident Aliens really shows where my head has been at in the last few months in my theological thinking and writing. In fact, I’ve lapsed into a serious form of theological grumpiness recently, probably thanks for reading a lot of Hauerwas (a noted theological grump) this summer and fall. And it all comes back to what this line is saying: the Church should not just be another social service agency.

I say this because, this seems to be where a lot of progressive Christians want to go with their church. Oftentimes, the worshiping is downplayed, the focus on God and Christ is downplayed, the spiritual and theological formation of congregants is downplayed, and instead, progressive churches highlight their social justice and service initiatives first and foremost.

And don’t get me wrong: those social services are vitally important. A lived faith involves working for justice in the world. Churches are important gatherings of like-minded people, and should put that collective effort to work in pursuing the Kingdom of God.

But, that last point is the key one: the work churches do is in service to God, at the behest of Christ, in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Our first order priority as the church is not justice, but worship. It is following Christ in service to God. Justice necessarily arises from this, because our God is a God of justice. But, everything the church does should stem from its identification as a specifically Christian institution.

This means that members of individual church should avoid desperately being the “strangers” Hauerwas and Willimon mention, and instead, should be intent on cultivating real, authentic relation with other members of the church. This should extend to feelings of accountability, in our public and private lives, to one another.

It also means that our personal pet projects – our “individual desires” – should not override the stated mission of the church. What I mean is, any service or work the church undertakes should eventually occur because of the desire to make disciples, and of being the Living Body of Christ in and for the world.

I’ve gotten grumpy because I don’t want my attendance at church to feel like I’m attending a local meeting of MoveOn or the United Way, and it’s so dang hard to find a good, progressive church that still centers the Gospel in a way that doesn’t make you feel like they are ashamed to say the words “God” or “Christ,” or that still acknowledge the important spiritual aspect of communion or the confessions. I know there are churches like this, but they are increasingly harder to find. And I think this is because so many progressives, mirroring conservative evangelicals, are seeing their churches as extensions of their political parties and priorities.

The church is meant to be the church. In other words, the church is tasked with the Great Commission first, and all other work arises from that. The first order of business in that is being a place where disciples of Christ are reoriented towards God, admitting guilt for our sins and seeking forgiveness, embracing our joy of membership in the body of Christ, and reaffirming our place in the great traditions of the church. Then, our faith, edified through the weekly practice of worship, compels us to our works in the world, which does mean social justice work, but also sometimes means just loving our neighbors and our enemies, forgiving those who sin against us, and being a living example of Christi n the world. This is the church I want to be a part of.

Why I Voted

This morning, I went to the Evanston City Building, and voted. This is a pretty regular thing for me; I haven’t missed a primary or general election since I turned 18. But this year’s visit to the poll was different for me because of where I am theologically.

img_0992My confidence in our political system has been fundamentally shaken over the last two years. Whereas I used to be an unabashed political progressive – someone who majored in political science, wrote a regular politics blog, ran for office, and worked for multiple political campaigns, all before the age of 28 – I have evolved significantly, both politically and theologically, since the election of 2016.

Now, obviously, the result of that election has a lot to do with that. No longer do I subscribe to the idea of a constant upward trajectory towards more and more justice, a la Dr. King’s “moral arc of the universe.” No longer do I believe in the inevitable push of democracy and the liberal project in the Western world to ensure progress and justice. The decision this country made in November of 2016, and the attendant racism, bigotry, hate and regress that has gripped us ever since then, has profoundly shaken my capacity to retain hope for a better political future for my country. In short, I just don’t believe any longer that progress if a surety. Descent into nationalism and fascism is just a likely.

As a result of this, and as a result of being a theologian, I have been searching theologically for answers to my despair. I have come to a place where I understand Christian political engagement as necessary, but as also requiring now a different rationale for action than that of progressive political activists. What I mean is, our work for justice as the church doesn’t mean the same thing as our work for justice as Democrats.

This theological movement has soured me on secular political engagement, and on forms of Christianity that map to it. I no longer so abashedly identify as a Democrat, or a progressive, or a liberal, or a socialist. Rather, I am less hesitant to call myself, plainly, a Christian, and let that define me. And with that, I have embraced more fully a theology that centers of Christ, as the fullest revelation of God, and as the setter of terms for Christian engagement in the world. I read Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens, which has greatly shaped my views of the Christian role in the world (more on this in future blog posts) and edged more into the postliberal camp. In my academic work, I have been focusing on theology done for impoverished rural whites, who voted dramatically for Trump, and thus my theology has been shaped in a way that is trying to make it relevant for this context. Part of that is realizing that the liberal project at work since at least the Enlightenment has failed, and democratic society is not the highest end of human achievement, not when we know there is God’s Kingdom out there waiting for us.

All of that to say: I no longer think my act of voting this morning was an entirely noble act. Not because voting in a democracy (no matter how much of a poor shadow of that term it may be) is a bad thing in and of itself, but because I honestly think that many of the choices I made were not terribly consequential or represented a real choice in the end for the vast majority of people.

There are deep, structural problems with the assumptions made at the foundation of American society, problems that are not even going to be addressed, much less fixed, but the simple binary choice of Democrat or Republican. We have to ask questions and demand answers about our society that reject that binary; questions about the shape of government, about the damaging role of free market capitalism, about the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a very few at the mortal expense of so many. For me, honestly, what we need is a complete dismantling and restructuring of society, because the way it is now is crucially flawed and failing.

As a Christian specifically, I see hope in the church, in the example of small communities, built around shared values and love of neighbor, doing work because of Christ, because of our salvation, because of God, and not for any other reason. Justice and rights and equality are important only insofar as they create disciples via the liberating of all human beings from the bonds of death, whatever shape those bonds may take in our world.

So, why did I do it? And why do I think you should go vote to, if I do ultimately think it’s a bit of a fool’s errand?

I still vote, and I want you to vote as well, because we live in the world as it is, and not as we hope it will be. We have to contend with reality right here and right now. And that reality includes structures of power and oppression that afflict those on the bottom. Refusing to engage, even in the engagement is in a system that has faulty assumptions that under-gird it, is to abandon those we are called by Christ to remember. To refuse to go vote as a citizen in the American democracy is to relinquish one of the few levers of power we have right now to effect even a small measure of change in our society. No, I don’t think, for the most part, there are huge differences in outcome between the D and the R on the ballot. But, there are differences, no matter how small, and we need to recognize that.

Now, what I don’t want you to take from what I just said is that I don’t think the very real differences between Democrats and Republicans on such important issues as police violence in African American communities, or the legal recognition of LGBTQI+ folks, or the fate of 11+ million illegal immigrants in our country, as small and thus the fate of those folks as potentially inconsequential. Precisely the opposite: those are huge issues facing very vulnerable communities who under our present administration are being hurt in real, concrete ways every single day.

What I do mean is this: voting isn’t enough for those communities. Facebook petitions aren’t enough. Marching isn’t enough. As Christians (and that’s who I’m writing to here) none of that is enough. What is required of us is to witness to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in our world, and that means asserting the innate goodness, the Imago Dei, in every single person. It means engaging in acts of self-sacrificial love in public. And it means, most crucially, finding our story, and their story, in the broader story of God, and living like it.

I vote because it’s still important. But voting isn’t our duty as Christians. Loving is. And you can’t love what you don’t know. You can’t love an abstract idea, or an ideology. You can love your fellow human beings, only by being in relationship with them, seeing their humanity, and acting on that love at each moment. It’s not sexy, like an #ivoted selfie or protest march. But if you want results, this is where we begin.

So go vote, please. This is, relatively speaking, a really important election. Politically, we can’t let the forces of bigotry and hate continue to set policy in our country. But then, don’t stop. Don’t think that my submitting your ballot, and posting about it on Facebook, you’ve done your duty. You’ve barely even begun. You are Christ’s body in this world.
It’s time to start living like it.