Sunday, January 13, 2013

Two apocalyptic families: a modest proposal

In 2009, Fleming Rutledge created an “apocalyptic family tree” that traces the genealogy and identifies the basic tenets of what has come to be known as the “Union school of apocalyptic.” It was, by and large, quite insightful—extending all the way back to the Blumhardts and including numerous non-Union affiliates and “cousins.”

Rutledge’s family tree, however helpful, is in need of reorganization. The lineage is more complicated than her single family tree would seem to indicate. For this, I propose two apocalyptic families. I first made this proposal in a paper I gave at the 2011 AAR meeting on “theology and apocalyptic,” which is now published in Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology, edited by Douglas Harink and Joshua Davis. I further elaborate on the point in an article coming out in the March issue of IJST on Bultmann and Bonhoeffer. The point in both pieces is that we need to differentiate between what I call “apocalyptic A” and “apocalyptic B,” though perhaps we could give more descriptive names, such as: “nondialectical apocalyptic” and “dialectical apocalyptic.”

The distinction comes down to this. For the first family of apocalyptic, the new age is one that is directly visible or apprehensible according to the categories and faculties of the old age; the new age sequentially follows the old and is competitive with it. For the second family of apocalyptic, the new age is only indirectly or paradoxically visible, and thus cannot be grasped according to the categories and faculties of the old age; the new age paradoxically coincides with the old age and is noncompetitively present within it. The latter is thus a dialectical understanding of the apocalyptic event, in that Christ’s incursion into the world is “wholly other” in a way that preludes its observation apart from the parabolic vision of faith. The former is nondialectical or antidialectical, however, in primarily two possible respects: historico-metaphysical (i.e., kingdom of God as the supernatural, millennial reign of Christ) and historico-political (i.e., kingdom of God as revolutionary order or alternative polis). The Union school of apocalyptic harbors an internal tension, insofar as it sides with both the political-liberationist approach of apocalyptic A and the dialectical-paradoxical approach of apocalyptic B. The work of Paul Lehmann and Christopher Morse captures this tension nicely.

With this differentiation between the two apocalyptic families, we can see that Rutledge’s family tree can be separated into two different lineages, beginning with the Blumhardts themselves. What follows is thus my attempt to trace the two family lines. I have left a number of names off the list, because I do not know enough about their understanding of apocalyptic to place them with any precision. Most of those I have left off are primarily biblical scholars whose work is more descriptive, rather than normative and constructive, in nature. I have placed a question mark next to those names that I suspect belong in a particular family but cannot state for sure. Finally, certain names I left off because I do not consider them to belong to the apocalyptic family at all (e.g., Childs).

Apocalyptic Family A

Thomas Müntzer

J. C. Blumhardt

Johannes Weiss
Albert Schweitzer
Ernst Käsemann

Fathers, children, and cousins (Union and non-Union):
J. Christiaan Beker
John Howard Yoder
Jacques Ellul
Jürgen Moltmann
Wolfhart Pannenberg?
John Baptist Metz
Gustavo Gutierrez
Stanley Hauerwas
Susan Grove Eastman?
Carl Braaten (see update below)

Estranged second cousins:
Thomas J. J. Altizer
John Milbank
David Bentley Hart

Estranged third cousins:
Jacob Taubes
Slavoj Žižek

Disowned great-uncle:
John Nelson Darby

Apocalyptic Family B

Martin Luther

Christoph Blumhardt (his later theology)
Søren Kierkegaard
Franz Overbeck

Karl Barth
Rudolf Bultmann
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Walter Benjamin

Fathers, children, and cousins (Union and non-Union):
Paul Lehmann
Christopher Rowland
J. Louis Martyn
Christopher Morse
James F. Kay
Martinus C. de Boer
Beverly Gaventa
Fleming Rutledge
J. C. Hoekendijk
Walter Lowe
William Stringfellow

Douglas Harink (in his most recent work)
Philip Ziegler
John Barclay
Susan Grove Eastman
Douglas Campbell?
Nathan Kerr?

Estranged third cousins:
Alain Badiou
Slavoj Žižek
Giorgio Agamben

To be sure, these two family trees raise as many questions as answers. Most people will scoff at the notion that Bultmann is an apocalyptic thinker, but since I have already made that case elsewhere, I refer people to the articles mentioned above. Others will wonder why Käsemann belongs in family A. This is also a case I make in those articles, but let me at least state the following: when I put Weiss, Schweitzer, and Käsemann together in apocalyptic A, I do so on the grounds that all three, writing as historians, identify a certain kind of apocalyptic thinking (viz. the historico-metaphysical type) as forming the theological milieu of the primitive Christian community. The difference between them is that Käsemann, unlike Weiss and Schweitzer, makes this conception of apocalyptic, or at least some understanding of it, to be essential to Christian faith. To be sure, Käsemann is more complicated, in that he goes on to write more normative-theological writings that seem closer to the Barth-Bultmann family line. Nevertheless, he left his mark on the apocalyptic conversation through his early historical writings. Where the definition of apocalyptic is concerned, Käsemann and Martyn represent distinctly different positions.

Other changes are worthy of extensive comment, but here I must be brief. First, I have added a “great-great-grandfathers” category, with Müntzer and Luther representing A and B, respectively. Müntzer is, of course, the anti-Lutheran Anabaptist rebel leader who is the hero of Taubes’s apocalyptic genealogy. There may be strong objections to Luther’s inclusion in the family tree, but contrary to those apocalyptic theologians who pit their views against the reformation, I can only see apocalyptic—at least in the sense of apocalyptic B—as the proper fulfillment of the reformation. Second, I have split the two Blumhardts. The father, Johann Christoph, is known for the deliverance of Gottliebin Dittus in 1842 and had a historico-metaphysical vision of the eschatological action of God. His son, Christoph, progressed through various stages in his thinking, including a period in which he left the institutional church altogether in favor of socialist politics (thus representing the historico-political side of apocalyptic A). But Christoph ended his life in a more dialectical conception of apocalyptic, whereby one engaged in action by waiting for God, since God’s action is radically eschatological and wholly other in nature and thus cannot be objectified in any metaphysical or political form. I have therefore split father and son as representative of A and B, respectively.

I’ve added some second and third cousins. Second cousins are theologians who share some of the family traits, but the rest of the family is embarrassed by them and exclude them from reunions. Third cousins are philosophers who share a thoroughly “Union apocalyptic” perspective, with the crucial exception that they deny the truth of this perspective. They are estranged by nature, rather than by any embarrassment on the part of the larger family.

Finally, I confess to being unsure about several of the names on the list. I placed Eastman in family A because she pits her position against Bultmann, but she could well belong in family B. Nate Kerr is more of an enigma to me, even though we have had numerous conversations. I am inclined to put him in family B because of his opposition to metaphysical or historicist objectifications of the Christ-event, including those of Hauerwas and Milbank; but he also seems to share a kind of historico-political form of apocalyptic that identifies the Christ-event with a certain kind of political praxis. Further clarification is needed.

This gives me a chance to clarify, in closing, my thoughts with respect to politics. Emphasis on the political nature of the gospel is not itself the issue in distinguishing between A and B. Notice above that I spoke specifically of a “historico-political” form of apocalyptic, and the list of family B theologians includes many with a political bent, including inter alia Barth, Bonhoeffer, Lehmann, and Morse. What I am seeking to identify instead is the collapse of the eschatological event of Christ into a certain sociopolitical modality—a direct (or at least not paradoxical) identification of the Christ-event with a particular political subjectivity that stands in a visibly competitive relation to other subjectivities. What unites apocalyptic A is that the eschaton, the new creation, is something literal and generally perceptible on the surface of history. The metaphysical version identifies the eschaton with an imminent, supernatural divine reign that all can observe (the so-called “second coming”); the political version identifies it with an immanent, political entity that all can observe (whether systemic or sectarian in nature). Apocalyptic B rejects both of these options—because the invasive action of God has already occurred in Christ and is available to faith alone. As Martyn says, it creates an “epistemological crisis.” This does not lessen the political import of the apocalypsis of God, but it does lead to a political agency that is more parabolic, indirect, paradoxical, and incognito.

Much more clarification is warranted, to be sure. But it is time for me to stop and for the conversation to begin.

Update on 1/16/13:
I have made a few changes. First, I moved Eastman and Žižek to apocalyptic B. Those who know their works better than I have persuaded me for the time being. Second, I added Carl Braaten to apocalyptic A. I meant to put Braaten on the list but left him off on accident. A couple years ago I came across his 1972 book, Christ and Counter-Christ, and was intrigued by the contribution it makes to the conversation. To be sure, this book is a product of its time and as with a number of the names on these two lists, putting him in one family or another is anachronistic. Braaten wrote this book on apocalyptic before Martyn and others came along to shake things up, so he takes it for granted that Käsemann’s position is really the only game in town, so to speak. Nevertheless, it reads like a combination of Tillich and Taubes (he praises both of them in the book), and it largely fits very well within apocalyptic A. He argues that the essence of apocalyptic theology is its “historico-eschatological dualism” (9), that is, its historical conflict between the powers of the old age and the powers of the new age, between God and Satan. He contrasts eschatological “development” (from present to future) with apocalyptic “liberation” (future to present), arguing that the latter “brings new reality through creative negation” (11). The goal of apocalyptic theology is realize the future in the present by “mediating the new into history, and creating a new tomorrow through revolutionary transformation of the world” (19). This is all vintage apocalyptic A. And let me add that I am all in favor of developing what Braaten calls an “apocalyptic theology of revolution.” But a person in family B will want to insist on a couple points. First, the dualism will have to be a paradoxical identity, which in my opinion is the central achievement of Martyn’s interpretation of Galatians, where he replaces a literal apocalypse with a bifocal vision of the new within the old (i.e., he epistemologizes the apocalypse). The dualism must not be a literal, observable conflict between two intraworldly powers. Second, the revolutionary action, which is absolutely necessary, cannot be seen as the actual mediation of the future into the present, or the effective realization of the new age here and now; it can only be a sign and witness to that which remains eschatologically beyond our grasp. Braaten has since confirmed that he belongs within apocalyptic A, despite abandoning his earlier apocalyptic thinking, by replacing his “theology of revolution” with a theology of “mother church.” When the revolutionary fever of the 1970s died away, the basic historico-eschatological dualism shifted from politics to ecclesiology, resulting in a call for a “return to catholicity” and “evangelical catholicism.” He thus writes in his 1998 work, Mother Church, that “if the church lives toward the future of God’s coming kingdom, she will not only be open to change, but she will also become the revolutionary instrument of change” (41). The ecumenical task—including, inter alia, the task of developing a theology of apostolic succession and church order—has therefore replaced the political task of revolution, since now the institution of the church is itself the agent of the new age simply by being the unified ecclesiastical organization within the world. Braaten thus unites within the trajectory of his own life the different forms of apocalyptic A that range from Käsemann and Moltmann to Hauerwas and Milbank.

Update on 1/16/13:
Question mark after Stringfellow’s name removed.

Update on 1/17/13:
Wolfhart Pannenberg was added to family A, but with a question mark indicating that I am not entirely convinced he belongs in the apocalyptic family tree. I have also added Christopher Rowland. De Boer notes that it was Rowland’s important study of apocalyptic, The Open Heaven (1982), that dislodged apocalyptic from being associated strictly with future expectations. In so doing he paved the way for Martyn’s apocalyptic reading of Galatians. Rowland sees apocalyptic as primarily about the present-tense, since it is fundamentally a matter of receiving heavenly wisdom for life now.

More importantly, I want to offer some explanation for why I devised these two trees in the first place. The genesis of this post goes back to the summer of 2011, when I was researching for an AAR paper that I had been accepted to give on Taubes and apocalyptic. In the course of that research, I did some extensive reading in Käsemann, Beker, and other scholars of apocalyptic. I had done a lot of work in Martyn years earlier, but this was my first time really delving into the wider conversation. What I noticed was that the definition of apocalyptic was not only wildly inconsistent—imminent, cosmic parousia (Käsemann), eschatological dualism (Braaten), heavenly wisdom for life (Rowland), etc.—but there were some obvious contradictions. For instance, Beker places Barth and Bultmann together as theologians who are anti-apocalyptic. But then how could contemporary apocalyptic theologians consistently point to Barth as the origin of the recovery of apocalyptic in modern theology? I also read Philip Ziegler’s piece on Bonhoeffer’s apocalyptic ethic, and while I came away convinced, I was also puzzled how to understand just who or what counts as apocalyptic. At the same time, I was neck-deep in my study of Bultmann, and I simply could not see sufficient reason why he should not also be considered apocalyptic. It became clear that what Bultmann was rejecting as apocalyptic was not what the members of the Union school were advocating. Martyn was talking about the need for “bifocal vision” and for an apocalypse in Galatians that does not have a literal invasion or catastrophic destruction of the old age. Morse even goes so far as to argue for a “deliteralizing” of the apocalypse. At this point things started to fall into place for me. On the one side I found Käsemann, Beker, and others arguing for a historical definition of apocalyptic as referring to a literal, visible, cosmic event in the chronological future. On the other side I found Martyn, Morse, and others in the Union school arguing for what I would call a theological or normative definition of apocalyptic as a way of interpreting the meaning of the Christ-event as it breaks into our existence in the present situation. Once I differentiated between these two understandings of the apocalypse, I could suddenly make sense of how Barth and Bonhoeffer could be rejected by some and affirmed by others as apocalyptic thinkers. What was more surprising was that I realized Bultmann rejected only the historical definition, and he was dismissed largely for that reason. In short, this whole exercise arose out of a need to clarify the relation between Käsemann and Martyn, between Beker and Barth. My only goal has been to shed light on the meaning of the concept of apocalyptic in order to assist the ongoing conversation.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Top 50 Albums of 2012

I am posting this a few weeks later than I would have liked, but I suppose that’s what comes from having a full-time job. The past year was a surprisingly good one for music. There weren’t any runaway winners, just a lot of very, very good albums. Consequently, the list of the top 50 seems even more arbitrarily ordered than in previous years. Given my time constraints, I have opted to forgo descriptions of each album. Just go and listen to them.

1. Passion Pit, Gossamer

2. Chromatics, Kill for Love

3. Lost in the Trees, A Church That Fits Our Needs

4. Bat for Lashes, The Haunted Man

5. Beach House, Bloom

6. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city

7. Perfume Genius, Put Your Back N 2 It

8. Dan Deacon, America

9. Karriem Riggins, Alone Together

10. iamamiwhoami, Kin

11. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel…

12. Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light

13. Grimes, Visions

14. Andy Stott, Luxury Problems

15. Moonface, With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery

16. Tame Impala, Lonerism

17. Julia Holter, Ekstasis

18. Sleigh Bells, Reign of Terror

19. DIIV, Oshin

20. Grizzly Bear, Shields

21. Crystal Castles, (III)
22. Trust, TRST
23. Hustle and Drone, Hustle and Drone EP
24. Twin Shadow, Confess
25. Purity Ring, Shrines
26. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
27. The xx, Coexist
28. Wild Nothing, Nocturne
29. Metric, Synthetica
30. Flying Lotus, Until the Quiet Comes
31. Antony & the Johnsons, Cut the World
32. Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits
33. El-P, Cancer 4 Cure
34. Cooly G, Playin’ Me
35. Menomena, Moms
36. The Shins, Port of Morrow
37. Lotus Plaza, Spooky Action at a Distance
38. Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin, Instrumental Tourist
39. Bowerbirds, The Clearing
40. Solange, True
41. Tussle, Tempest
42. Poliça, Give You the Ghost
43. Ellie Goulding, Halcyon
44. Father John Misty, Fear Fun
45. Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe
46. Tanlines, Mixed Emotions
47. Lone, Galaxy Garden
48. Chairlift, Something
49. John Talabot, ƒIN
50. Hot Chip, In Our Heads

Friday, January 11, 2013

Announcing: Aberdeen MTh in theological ethics

The University of Aberdeen has a new one-year Master’s in Theological Ethics. The Theological Ethics area emphasizes fundamental texts and thinkers in the Christian tradition for engaging contemporary issues and debates. If you have questions or are interested in applying to the MTh program feel free to contact Professor Bernd Wannenwetsch, Dr Brian Brock or Dr Michael Mawson.