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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Eschatologically Hopeful Pessimism: A Critique of Miguel de la Torre’s Theology of Hopelessness

The following is a paper I wrote last semester, for my Latinx Theologies in North America course.

  • Introduction

 

There is much to be pessimistic and hopeless about in United States culture today. The election of Donald Trump last year marked an undeniable turning point in recent American history, but one grounded in the political and cultural situation the country has endured for the last several decades. Neoliberalism has dominated the late- and post-Cold War world, decimating social safety nets, justifying U.S. hegemony, proclaiming the ultimate sovereignty of capitalistic free markets, and disregarding the cry and cause of the world’s poor and oppressed. While the eight years of the Obama presidency seemed, at least on the surface, a beacon of hope for the future, the first year of the Trump administration has dispelled those hopes for so many. Pessimism and hopelessness are not irrational or unreasonable responses to the current situation. The future does not look bright for any but those who are white, straight, male, and rich.

In the face of this, Christianity is inevitably a tradition predicated on eschatological hope, on the promise that God does have the final say, that, in the end, all will be set right. This hope is assured in Scripture, but seems so far away right now. How does one impart hope on undocumented young people facing down deportation to countries they’ve never known, but that American political leaders insist is their rightful place? How does one reassure a village of working people south of the U.S.-Mexican border who are beset by free trade, the War on Drugs, environmental degradation, and the specter of a dangerous and erratic President in Washington D.C.? What good is God’s message of hope when people’s lives are literally on the line, when suffering and fear and sadness and death are the dominant experience of peoples around the world?

esquivel-cross-1In The Politics of Jesus, Miguel De La Torre dismisses the promise of hope, positing a “theology of hopelessness” (de la Torre, 137) that declares hopes to be “a class privilege experienced by those protected from the realities of [Good] Friday or the opium that is used to numb that same reality until Sunday rolls around.” (de la Torre, 138) This seems reasonable in light of everything said above, especially when one considers that De La Torre wrote those words more than two years ago, long before Donald Trump and the Alt-Right had barely entered the political consciousness of the United States and the world. However, in this paper, I posit that other Latinx scholars and theologians – specifically (but certainly not exclusively), Justo Gonzalez and Nancy Pineda-Madrid – provide the groundworks for a Latinx theology that also accounts for the suffering and death present in the world, while leaving open the possibility of eschatological hope.

In the end, I bring this together in what I call a theology of eschatologically-hopeful pessimism: a theology that holds deep pessimism about the future of world political and social structures as we know them at the same time as retaining hope about the ultimate aim of God in the world – that of a reconciled humanity, made whole. In doing this, I draw on the powerful work of the Latinx scholars listed above, centering their words about suffering and hope as an acknowledgement of the robust and vibrant Latinx culture in the United States and its ability to speak with more moral force than the deeply compromised white Protestant culture out of which I myself arrive. I also draw on process theology to provide some powerful concepts about God and Creation in constructing this tentative theology of hopeful pessimism.

 

  • De La Torre’s Theology of Hopelessness

 

Miguel De La Torre spends most of The Politics of Jesus contrasting the Jesus of dominant, white North American culture with the Jesús of Latinx culture, who identifies with the struggles and experiences of Latinx people in North America. In doing so, he powerfully points out a number of injustices and oppressions facing Latinx people, writing with intensity and passion and a palpable anger.

However, in chapter 4, he turns to describing what he calls a Theology of Hopelessness, grounded in Latinx experience in North America. He begins by critiquing what he describes as a specifically European Christian predilection for centering hope. “One of the unexamined assumptions of the Christian faith is a theology that is based on esperanza, on hope.” (de la Torre, 133) For De La Torre, this hope takes the form of believing in a happy ending for society. “I have no problem with a hope in God; I do however find it problematic to hope that all things will work out for the best. History and personal experience show that it seldom does.” (de la Torre, 133)

Beyond just being a belief in the personal good fortune of each soul, De La Torre specifically defines this eschatological hope as having a social, political dimension at its core. He dismisses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the moral universe being bent towards justice inevitably. Instead, he writes, rather nihilistically, “There is nothing inevitable about the passage of time, no teleology to history, nothing but a game of random chance. What we call history is chaos, with no rhyme or reason, mainly because the events are as unpredictable and contradictive as humans. One is hard pressed to notice any type of progressive dialectical march toward a better human existence.” (de la Torre, 134)

De La Torre justifies this view as distinctly Latinx, noting that Latinx Catholics are more often “Ash Wednesday and Good Friday Catholics” (de la Torre, 137), rather than the oft-mentioned “Christmas and Easter Catholics” of white counterparts. He notes the oppressed, impoverished, and unjust situation of so many Latinx people in the Western hemisphere, pointing out that this experience of suffering and despair is closer to the norm than it’s opposite. It is an experience of the world predicated on powerlessness and otherness; the notion that the structures of power will orient themselves toward the betterment of Latinx people, especially if it comes at the expense of Euro-Americans, is laughable. Hope is not a luxury Latinx people can afford.

Inevitably, the question arises: what, then, is the point of a Christian existence? Why do good, or trust in God, if all hope is banished and suffering is inevitably the lot of Latinx peoples? For De La Torre, the answer is found in solidarity with the poor of the world in their fight for liberation, even in the face of hopeless odds. Hope in this context, contends De La Torre, tends toward passivity and acceptance of the fate one has been given. (de la Torre, 138) In order to counter this passive acceptance, De La Torre posits that Latinx people come together and fight for one another. “[W]hat does Jesucristo offer?”, he asks. “Maybe not so much comfort, but a strategy of survival, a praxis that might easily fall short of the mark. I advocate that followers of Jesús wishing to do liberative ethics must approach the task from a theology of hopelessness, where meaning and purpose is given to life in the struggle of implementing justice-based praxis.” (de la Torre, 139)

This, then, is the answer De La Torre provides: life is about the struggle, not about what the struggle is for, ultimately. In fact, the struggle will almost certainly fail, for peoples outside the nexus of power. They must fight, and they must throw their lot in with Jesús, not because that Jesús offers hope, but because that Jesús offers tactics.

De La Torre’s theology of hopelessness, while intriguing, is ultimately unappealing, because it provides no purpose for Latinx Christians, beyond the daily fight for survival. When those fighting people come the Jesús predicated on hopelessness, and ask, “Why are we fighting?”, it is unlikely they will receive an answer. And then, what is to keep them fighting on, if the work they are putting in is all for naught?

De La Torre’s theology fails because, by his own admission, it neglects the word of hope that stands at the center of Christian thought. Jesus did not just die; he was also resurrected. Good Friday and Holy Saturday were dark and bleak, and the disciples may have struggled through both days in hopeless despair, but Easter Sunday did come. Hope is the Christian story. Mere survival is not what we are called to, but rather thriving and living abundantly.

De La Torre can be forgiven his hopelessness, however, in light of the weak and unappealing answers the dominant Christian culture has presented in the face of suffering, and because of the fact that that same church has so often been complicit in that suffering. Anger, despair, and yes, even loss of hope, are all reasonable and warranted reactions to this reality.  My goal is not to dismiss the notions undergirding De La Torre’s argument, but rather, to affirm them. All one has to do is survey the state of the political and social culture of the United States in 2017 to see that his critique is spot on. Nevertheless, I believe his conclusions, and his prescriptions for action, are inadequate, and can be reformulated in a way that maintains his critique while still giving people a reason to rise and fight day after day.

 

  • Redeeming Hope: A Latinx alternative to De La Torre

 

As De La Torre is a Latinx theologian, and speaks of suffering and hopelessness from a perspective no white theologian can, it is only appropriate that any alternate to his theology of hopelessness is built on the work of other Latinx theologians. In order to do just that, I will draw on the work of Nancy Pineda-Madrid and Justo L. Gonzalez.

 

  • Nancy Pineda-Madrid’s Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juarez

 

Nancy Pineda-Madrid grapples with the almost unimaginable suffering of women in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, and how they are bearing the brunt of the U.S.’s aimless and destructive “war on drugs,” and the drug gangs south of the Rio Grande who benefit. Despite this bleak situation, Pineda-Madrid is still able to find cause for hope among these women. What becomes evident is that, as seen in the lives of the women of Juarez, hopelessness is very rarely the attitude of those who are on the frontlines of oppression. Instead, despite everything they must endure, they still find the ability to feel the hope of Christ in their lives.

Pineda-Madrid focuses on salvation as she tries to understand how the women of Juarez continue on with their lives in the face of the feminicide they live with every day. (Pineda-Madrid, 58-68) She speaks of the loss of an assurance of salvation, and relatedly, the loss of any fear of judgement, labeling the kind of nihilistic destruction seen in Juarez (and elsewhere) “sociocide, the killing of society.” (Pineda-Madrid, 61)

Pineda-Madrid moves into a broader look at salvation in the history of Christian thought. Near the end of her book, she ruminates on the “fulfillment of salvation”, noting that “salvation is realized through the forging of a particular kind of community, one that reveals clearly the interrelatedness of all humanity – part, present, and future – and the relatedness of humanity with the whole of creation.” (Pineda-Madrid, 141) For Pineda-Madrid, salvation comes through unity, and unity provides the answer to the question of the suffering of the women of Juarez. By standing together, by practicing the very same solidarity De La Torre calls for, the women of Juarez embrace not just a utilitarian fight for their lives, but a hope-filled vision of a better community, predicated upon love and care for one another. In this sense, solidarity can’t help be anything but hopeful As Pineda-Madrid writes, “They have made it known that the grotesque execution of Juarez’s daughters is not, cannot, and will not be the last word in their lives. The victims’ struggle for life does not end in their execution and death. The practitioners have titled the community of Juarez and all of us toward the possibility of hope and salvation.” (Pineda-Madrid, 152)

In this, we get our first glimpse of a theology to replace De La Torre’s. Salvation is promised to us by God, and that salvation consists in the reconciliation – the re-union- of all things with God. That means the making of a divine community, in which all are drawn together and suffering and oppression are undermined by solidarity that refuses to allow it to go unchecked. It does not deny the reality of suffering, nor does it promise to end it immediately. But it does envision a world where God’s salvific vision for the world creeps inexorably closer.

    1. Justo L. Gonzalez’s Mañana

The preeminent Hispanic theologian Justo L. Gonzalez provides us a second piece to draw upon in providing an alternative to De La Torre’s theology of hopelessness: his concept of mañana. For Gonzalez, mañana “is much more than ‘tomorrow.'” (Gonzalez, 164) For him, mañana is the promise of a better future, especially for poor and oppressed Latinx peoples. Mañana “is a word of judgment on today” (Gonzalez, 164), because it envisions a better tomorrow, and thus, criticizes via comparison. It is the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus.

It is also revolutionary. By being focused on the mañana of God, the people of God begin to live in a mañana way. (Gonzalez, 166) Thus, they will no longer be living in the way of the world. This, in and of itself, a hopeful act; one only begins living in a new way if they believe that new way is good, and thus, can be better for themselves and the world. By living in God’s vision of the kingdom, we are affirming the reality of God’s future for us.

One last point from Gonzalez is important. He writes, “The world will not always be as it is. It will not even be an outgrowth of what is. God who created the world in the first place is about to do a new thing – a thing as great and as surprising as that first act of creation.” (Gonzalez, 164) This last point is especially important, because it allows the future to be envisioned without requiring the hearer to build on the world as it is, and thus, to in some way, affirm that present world’s legitimacy. Mañana is not built upon or predicated by the way things are now. Instead, it is an all new world order, meaning the old will be swept away whole, and replaced. The unjust structures of the world are certainly dominant now, but they will not always be. The world of mañana will be completely new and unrecognizable.

 

  • A Theology of Hopeful Pessimism

 

The alternative to De La Torre’s theology of hopelessness I wish to sketch here is built upon the work of Pineda-Madrid and Gonzalez, while also retaining De La Torre’s social critique, and also bringing in one more conversation partner: that of process theology.

Built upon the metaphysical philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, process thought is relational; that is, it understands God as relating and close to humanity, rather than distant. God is loving and good, wanting what is best for creation. What sets process apart is its insistence that God is dynamic, that God changes and grows as a result of God’s interactions, and people’s choices and free will. In this theology, God is necessarily limited and not omniscient. Human beings have total free will and agency to act; thus, they co-create with God the future. That future has an initial aim given to it by God, but this aim is not determinative. Rather, our actions and thoughts, and the actions and thoughts of others, human or otherwise, throughout all of history, influence the outcome. (Cobb and Griffin, 67) God is understood as non-coercive, but rather persuasive, gently steering creation towards an eschatological finality that is envisioned by God by not certain. (Cobb and Griffin, 52) God cannot see the future, because the future is determined by our own actions; God merely knows what God’s initial aim was, and continually works towards that, presenting new possibilities each and every moment from what is. (Cobb and Griffin, 123)

Rather than a theology of hopelessness, I propose in its place a theology of eschatologically hopeful pessimism. This theology draws on Pineda-Madrid’s notion of salvation via community, Gonzalez’s mañana, De La Torre’s social critique, and process theology’s insistence on an undetermined, but lovingly guided and created, future, to insist that hope is warranted, but not at the cost of denying the monumental moments of suffering that will happen between now and the eschaton.

There is no doubt that the world is a deeply flawed place, characterized chiefly by suffering, death, and oppression. There can be no disputing that, nor minimizing it. Throughout the several thousand years of human civilization, the vast majority of human beings have led short, brutal lives, defined by disappointment, pain and ultimately death, inflicted by ourselves on one another. De La Torre is certainly correct in his critique of the human predilection for oppressing the other, manifested in the world today as oppression of people who are not Euro-Americans.

A familiarity with the history of human civilization does not allow for the illusion that, nicarauga nativitywith time, all with independently right itself, and a virtuous human kingdom on earth will emerge. Pessimism about humanity alone is absolutely warranted. This pessimism certainly applies to the United States in 2017. It is not unreasonable to believe that we are in the waning days of American hegemony as we know it. This idea is terrifying to so many who live in the dominant culture of the United States; to contemplate a post-American world is, for many, to contemplate an “end of history” of sorts, although not in the positive modernist sense of Francis Fukuyama when he coined that phrase. Instead, it is borderline apocalyptic. The brand of North American Protestantism that has wound itself up in the American flag certainly affirms that feeling. And it is analogous to the attitude De La Torre has, of a global order in crisis and failing the vast majority people, teetering on the edge of existence and thus seemingly lost to any hope.

A theology of hopeful pessimism, on the other hand, retains the pessimism of the state about the state of the world, agreeing that we are on a cultural cusp, close to tipping into an abyss potentially analogous to the Medieval “Dark Ages.” Society, we know it, as defined not just by the post-war order, but by the Enlightenment and Protestant Spirit of the last 500 years, may be passing. In fact, it almost certainly is.

However, at the same time, a theology of hopeful pessimism retains hope because it acknowledges that the order of society today is not all there is. Beyond this, there is the universal aim of God, pointed towards love and justice and authentic, redemptive community. It is hopeful that a better world is in our future because this is God’s creation, and God has ordered it towards such an outcome.

Embracing the process thought introduced earlier, this is not a passive hope, waiting around for God to unilaterally set things right, so self-assured of salvation that it becomes numb to the suffering in the meantime. Instead, it is a hope grounded in the co-creative process of creation humanity is engaged in with God, experienced in our lives as the Spirit. That guiding Spirit provides the initial aim for creation, but we, as autonomous, free beings, are able to make our own choices and to influence the trajectory of history. Our hope does not reside in the power of God to override our freedom and set things right; instead, our hope rests in the ability of God to persuade creation towards a better mañana, and to work with the results of our choices to create better moments each and every time.

Within this theology is the notion of a God who is in solidarity with the suffering peoples of the world, especially the Latinx people spoken of so passionately by De La Torre, Gonzalez, and Pineda-Madrid. God, through Jesus, experienced the very depths of human limitations and suffering. Due to that experience, God can authentically know what the oppressed peoples of the world feel, and can be understood not as distant and unfeeling and unmoving, but as close and suffering together and thus letting that experience influence the aim for creation God imparts at every moment. God practices radical solidarity, of the sort spoken of by De La Torre, and by doing so, initiates at each moment the elements of a better future for humanity.

The theology of hopeful pessimism affirms the goodness and love of God, along with the initial aim set by God, but realizes that we cannot even begin to fathom how to get there, due to our role as limited beings. In fact, even God cannot predict how we will get there. We and God can only continue the work of creation in the certainty of success, fighting not for fighting’s sake, but for the sake of mañana. And it will only be achieved together, by each and every person realizing the aim in their own lives and working towards that aim together. That is the salvation promised to us in Christ. That is the hope of mañana.

A theology of eschatologically hopeful pessimism is just what the name suggests: a pessimistic view of the world as it is, balanced by the hope of the world as God intends it to be. It is not blind or oblivious or dismissive of the shortcomings of the world. Rather, it acknowledges the depth of those shortcomings, and the ultimate, determinative effects that have on people’s lives. It sees oppression and injustice as inevitable in human dealings, and sees human society alone as insufficient. At the same time, it has hope that God can carry forward salvation with our and for us, in every moment that is in process.

  1. Conclusion

Miguel De La Torre begins the good work of constructing a theology that is not divorced from the crucial critique of modern culture many theologians are engaging in. Too often, there is a disconnect between that critique, and the cheerful, sunny talk of God and Christianity that occur on the same page. De La Torre does not fall for this trap. At the same time, his theology of hopelessness comes up well short of convincing, due to its rejection of the deeply Christian hope embodied by the resurrection of Christ.

Pulling together De La Torre, Nancy Pineda-Madrid, Justo Gonzalez, and the rising field of process theology, a better answer can be provided to the suffering peoples of the world. While the theology expressed in these pages is far from finished or fully constructed, it hopes to be an initial step in the working of a new idea in the interplay between Christian hope and worldly realities. Most importantly, it hopes to have drawn on the works and ideas of those who truly know what it means to suffer, and it maintains this focus as completely necessary for any further work. Only by knowing and taking seriously the lived experiences of the least, the lost and the last, can we truly begin to construct a way forward in a world that is slowly but inevitably collapsing around us.

In the end, not even De La Torre can maintain total hopelessness. In a note of hope amidst his own hopelessness, he concedes: “hope might be found after it is crucified and then may be resurrected in the shards of live.” (de la Torre, 139) Through Christ, we know that Resurrection is a reality in our world. It is a dark, depressing Friday now. But Sunday is in our future.

 

 

Bibliography

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

De La Torre, Miguel. The Politics of Jesus: A Hispanic Political Theology. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Manana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.

Pineda-Madrid, Nancy. Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juarez. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.

The Power and Meaning of Resurrection

 

The following is a paper I wrote last semester, for my Introduction to Theology class.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is at the heart of the Gospel story. This story, and the reality it invokes, defines Christian thought and sets the faith apart in a special way. St. Paul write to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17 NRSV). But what does it mean that Christ has been resurrected? Is this a claim asking believers to suspend their understandings of metaphysical reality of life and death and accept that a fleshly body died and was reanimated two thousand years ago? Or does it mean something more? And if so, what? The Resurrection is crucially important to the Christian faith, not because it reveals a magic-working God, but because it reveals a God who stands in solidarity with human suffering, and consequently, proclaims hope to humans amidst our suffering.

resurrectioniconThe writings of Paul are the earliest Christian writings we possess today. Written decades before the Gospels, Paul’s undisputed letters (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) provide the earliest lens of what the church believed about Jesus, at a bare minimum. Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot. Ehrman relates what isn’t in Paul:

“We hear nothing here of the details of Jesus’ birth or parents or early life, nothing of his baptism or temptations in the wilderness, nothing of his teachings about the coming Kingdom of God. We have no indication that he ever told a parable, that he ever healed anyone, cast out a demon, or raised the dead. We learn nothing of his transfiguration or triumphal entry, of his cleansing of the Temple, of his interrogation by the Sanhedrin or trial before Pilate, of his being rejected in favor of Barabbas, of his being mocked, or flogged, and so on.”

We do, however, hear of the Resurrection, as one of the few important events surrounding Jesus that Paul describes. The longest and most important Pauline explication of the Resurrection can be found in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, which was quoted above. This chapter serves as the center of Paul’s argument in the Epistle, and presents the Resurrection of Christ as the forerunner to the coming resurrection of all human beings at Christ’s Second Coming. His full account of the Resurrection tradition is “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor 15: 3-8 NRSV). Notice that Paul’s account of his own encounter with the resurrected Christ does not need to be differentiated from the appearances that are recounted in the Gospels themselves; Paul understands it to be of the same form and importance.

The Resurrection sees great further development across the four Gospels included in Scripture. First, in Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, we get little more than we see in Paul. Chapter 16 tells the story of three women coming to the tomb and encountering a heavenly messenger who tells them Jesus is resurrected; however, many scholars now believe this chapter to be a later interpolation, which means originally Mark most likely included no Resurrection story.

Matthew, the next earliest Gospel, includes a resurrection Jesus, who appears to his followers and gives them the Great Commission, whereupon the Gospel story ends. Luke has a resurrected Jesus who appears to two disciples on the walk to Emmaus, and then eats with them. Later, he appears to the full group of disciples and implores them to touch him, saying “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39 NRSV). He then goes on to ascend into heaven. Finally, in John, Jesus is resurrected, and has many appearances to a great variety of people, including doubting Thomas, who sticks in hands in Jesus’ wounds and finds him to be a real, flesh-and-blood body. In this last Gospel, the story of Jesus’ Resurrection appearances goes on for two chapters. How far we have come from Paul’s bare account of the Resurrection, written half a century earlier!

The preceding inventory of Resurrection stories from Scripture serve to show that a uniform, clear understanding of the nature of the event was disputed and unclear even within the first hundred years of Christian tradition. What can we discern from these stories today, but more importantly, what do they mean to us today? Clearly, Paul’s understanding that Jesus’ Resurrection was but the first act in a rapidly approaching general resurrection has been proven false. And scientific advances over the last 500 years – in biology, physics, and cosmology – preclude a literal understanding of a dead body reanimating and ascending upwards to a heaven from fitting within a rationalistic worldview. So, what was the Resurrection, and what does it mean?

iconresurrectTyron Inbody provides some powerful understandings of the event in The Faith of the Christian Church. “The New Testament does not speak of the resurrection directly.” Throughout Scripture, no physiological explanation of Jesus’ body is given. Thus, anyone who claims a physical reanimation of Jesus is speculating extra-biblically. Reason cannot be shed here. “Jesus was not resuscitated; he was resurrected.” What we know about the Resurrection, then, must only be speculation, formed within the bounds of reason, tradition and experience. “The resurrection is an inference; no one saw it.”

For Inbody, the theological significance of the resurrection turns on a non-physical understanding of its process. “The idea of resuscitation completely misses the theological meaning of the resurrection.” The resurrected person was most definitely Jesus; the Gospel stories place importance on the moment observers recognized Jesus: “there was a continuity of identity between the one who died and the one raised.” But that doesn’t mean it was the literal body that had hung on a cross appearing; in fact, to say so would defeat the importance of Resurrection story for Inbody. “It was his body transformed from one mode of existence to another, a new mode of physicality or a new mode of corporeality.”

The transference of Jesus’ identity to a new form of being, beyond death and a defeated human body, reveals the power of God over death and sin, not as a destructive power, but a recreating and reforming power. “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the beginning of God’s great work of redemptive transformation, the seed from which the new creation begins to grow…God does not annihilate the past and death but transforms them, releases new power, makes them into a new creation.” Explaining scientifically how the resurrection happened isn’t what’s important; all that matters is that “something happened,” something that God did to defeat death, not in some other plane of metaphysics, but here in our world, as we understand and experience is now. “Though exactly what happened is beyond our understanding, it is an event affecting history.”

So, what does “what happened” mean for us? We can look back to Scripture for the answer: “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” (Hebrews 12: 3) The resurrection of Christ reveals the fulfillment of God’s solidarity with those who suffer, in that death and sin does not have the final say. Instead, God reassures those who suffer by reminding them of God’s own experience of suffering, and God can work with those moments and experiences to create a new, better world.

Karen Baker-Fletcher understands this aim of God. “For many,” she writes, “the passion of Jesus Christ during his torture and crucifixion has meaning because they take comfort in the incarnation of God, a God who empathizes with their own experiences of being sinned against.” Baker-Fletcher uses the story of the contemporary lynching of James Byrd Jr by white supremacists in Texas as an example of God’s identity with the oppressed, and the solidarity God shows with those who sin, and with those who suffer from that sin. In the story of Byrd, but also in the story of his killers, is shown a God who weeps along with us. God weeps because God also experienced suffering, torture, and eventually, death, the end of fleshly existence, the literal embodiment of meaninglessness, which is the pathological human fear undergirding much of our actions.

But out of meaninglessness, God creates meaning. Only through resurrection can the experience of suffering and death be redeemed. Hope arises when we understand that God can take the suffering and death we see around us, and work for something better. This is not to excuse the sinful actions that so often cause suffering; but, instead, it is a word of hope for the oppressed, and a word of caution for the oppressors. Hope, in that God will remove the hand holding the weak in bondage; and caution, in that no matter how hard they try, the oppressor cannot win history on the backs of others. God’s love shines through the Resurrection, proclaiming victory for life for all peoples. “God, who is all-inclusive in God’s love for the world, experiences the suffering of all and graciously offers transformative visions of faith and courage to the world.”

The Resurrection was not a physical reanimation of the body of Christ that showcased the power of God over the laws of nature, in an effort to subordinate our fear of death to some hyper-rational faith in a magician God. This understanding of Resurrection isn’t comforting to those who suffer, but is instead terrifying, asking us to believe something many of us cannot in the vain hope that it will come true. No, the Resurrection of Jesus is the story of God recreating the world in a way that ensures that death does not get the final word, but instead, love does. Jesus rose from the dead in the view of his disciples not as a body, but as the ideal of God’s victory for them, the oppressed, as a liberation from the death-dealing powers of the world. Resurrection is important, because, as Paul wrote, it reminds us that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39 NRSV).

 

Bibliography

Baker-Fletcher, Karen. Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective. St Louis: Chalice Press, 2006.

Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 6th Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Inbody, Tyron. The Faith of the Christian Church: An Introduction to Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.