Reading Roundup | 11.1.20

In which I roundup a portion of my reading from the last week (or so).

Today’s roundup comes on All Saints Day, in which we celebrate the saints who have gone before us and our ongoing communion with them:

All Saints Day was focused on exemplary Christians. This doesn’t mean they were “perfect” Christians. It means that some aspect of God’s grace shined brightly in their lives, and was seen and acclaimed by many others.

We commemorate the Patriarchs, the Prophets, and Mary, Joseph, the Apostles and so many other biblical saints. We also commemorate the saints of the Christian Church including martyrs like Perpetua, teachers like Augustine, and mystics like St. Teresa of Avila.

Later, All Souls Day was added on November 2nd, as a way to acknowledge all believers.

This focus on the past helps us gain wisdom for the present. By focusing on these saints, we can learn from them. And since there is only one Body of Christ in heaven and on earth, we also celebrate our communion with them.

Of course, this is mystical communion, which means that its out of our control. But we know it is real. We are in fellowship with those who have gone before us, since we are all in Christ. This helps us satisfy our human longing for communion with those who have gone before.

Charlotte Donlon | I Lost My Dad to COVID-19: The Theology of All Saints’ Day Sustains Me

The theology of the communion of saints and All Saints’ Day also sustains me in my grief. I read Scriptures, pray prayers, and recite creeds with members of my congregation and others around the world and know their moments of faith carry me when I’m unable to travel the road of suffering on my own. I hear about others who have lost loved ones this year, and I know I’m not weeping alone. My prayers ferry others when their enormous sense of loss interferes with their ability to believe God is still good. And their prayers ferry me.

All Saints’ Day also gives me hope. Hope has been pretty hard to come by this year. But on this feast day, God reminds us of our ultimate destination. Having hope in the eventual full realization of the kingdom of God doesn’t take away our sorrow and grief, but it becomes a sort of comrade. It takes our hand and leads us toward what’s true. Yes, we have lost so much, and we will continue to experience loss. But we have also received good things, and we will continue to receive good things. In Christ, we receive God’s presence, comfort, love, grace, and mercy. We receive the ability to empathize and sympathize with others who are where we have been or where we are now. We receive assurance that this place we inhabit isn’t our final stop.

Joshua Jipp | The Heresy of Radical Individualism: Part One, Part Two, Part Three – drawing on Colin Gunton, he gets to the importance of a relational understanding of personhood:

I wrote my PhD thesis on a British theologian named Colin Gunton.

In several works (but especially The One, the Three and the Many), Gunton ping-pongs between theology, Scripture, philosophy, and political theory in order to understand the nature of human and divine personhood.

In so doing, he identifies two ideological extremes in modern times: 

1. Western Individualism, and

2. Eastern (Communist) Collectivism.

Like many of Gunton’s sweeping claims, this is more than a little oversimplified, but I still think it can be helpful.

His claim is that both extremes represent deficient understandings of God, humanity, and the nature of reality.

In his words,

“The person is neither an individual, defined in terms of separateness from others, nor one who is swallowed up in the collective” (The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, 13).

Building on a certain doctrine of the Trinity, Gunton writes the following:

To be is not to be an individual; it is not to be isolated from others cut off from the them by the body that is a tomb, but in some way to be bound up with one another in relationship.

Being a person is about being from and for and with the other. I need you – and particularly those of you who are nearest to me—in order to be myself. That is the first thing to say: persons are beings who exist only in relation—in relation to God, to others, and to the world from which they come” (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 14).

Lauren Slate | The Trouble with Self-Esteem – speaking of individualism, given the ascendency of the USAmerican fascination with self-improvement – which centres on the cultural project of what might be called “selfing” – this may strike some as counterintuitive:

It has not been much disputed, until recently, that high self-esteem — defined quite simply as liking yourself a lot, holding a positive opinion of your actions and capacities — is essential to well-being and that its opposite is responsible for crime and substance abuse and prostitution and murder and rape and even terrorism. …

This all makes so much sense that we have not thought to question it. The less confidence you have, the worse you do; the more confidence you have, the better you do; and so the luminous loop goes round. Based on our beliefs, we have created self-esteem programs in schools in which the main objective is, as Jennifer Coon-Wallman, a psychotherapist based in Boston, says, ”to dole out huge heapings of praise, regardless of actual accomplishment.” We have a National Association for Self-Esteem with about a thousand members, and in 1986, the State Legislature of California founded the ”California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.” It was galvanized by Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, who fervently believed that by raising his citizens’ self-concepts, he could divert drug abuse and all sorts of other social ills.

It didn’t work.

In fact, crime rates and substance abuse rates are formidable, right along with our self-assessment scores on paper-and-pencil tests. (Whether these tests are valid and reliable indicators of self-esteem is a subject worthy of inquiry itself, but in the parlance of social-science writing, it goes ”beyond the scope of this paper.”) In part, the discrepancy between high self-esteem scores and poor social skills and academic acumen led researchers like Nicholas Emler of the London School of Economics and Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University to consider the unexpected notion that self-esteem is overrated and to suggest that it may even be a culprit, not a cure.

The above quote is from an article written in 2002. The assessment hasn’t changed after 18 years:

Over the years, researchers and clinicians worked to identify low self-esteem, and they of course also worked on a solution. This was, quite naturally, to increase self-esteem. If low is bad, then high is good. This makes perfect sense. Except it didn’t quite play out as expected.

The self-esteem movement has now focused for decades on improving self-esteem, so they’ve had plenty of time to get it right. Although the substantial research body shows that it is possible to increase self-esteem (or at least people’s self-report of it) it wasn’t shown to be all that helpful. A famous review of over 20,000 self-esteem studies concluded that boosting self-esteem does not cause any demonstrable benefits (Baumeister et al 2003). In fact, inflated self-esteem has been linked with unhelpful individualism, narcissism, and reduced co-operation with others.

See also this interview with Will Storr in Vox on How the West became a self-obsessed culture

The personal answer is that I’m 43, and so I was raised right in the heart of the self-esteem culture. I had a troubled childhood, I acted out at school, I didn’t go to university because I failed all my exams, I was drinking, taking drugs, all of that usual stuff, and I was in therapy from quite an early age. What everybody kept telling me over and over again was that my problem was low self-esteem, and so all I had to do was learn to love myself and everything would be better. And this is what I continued to believe until very recently.

I was working on a profile of this psychologist named Roy Baumeister, who sort of blew apart a lot of our myths around self-esteem. It wasn’t until I discovered his work that I realized everything I had been told was bullshit. I had been sold a lie, like millions of other people. I learned about this weird story involving a self-esteem task force in California in the 1980s that was largely responsible for what became the self-esteem industry.

See Storr’s book – Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed & What It’s Doing to Us

Beth Felker Jones | Witnessing in Freedom: Resisting the Commodification of the Image – a delightful lecture engaging theological ethics and anthropology from the Wheaton 2015 Theology Conference:

See the print version in The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology

Red Letter Christians | Why It Matters: An Interview with Sara Groves About Noticing and Naming

Groves, in response to a question about what to expect with her next album, delivers some wisdom which perhaps runs against the grain of the USAmerican project of radical “selfing,” insofar as this project majors on self-transparency and overlooks or ignores the propensity of persons toward self-deception:

Sara: It is in its formative days, but the central question seems to be – why is it so hard to tell ourselves the truth?  Our very hearts are so ‘close’ to us, and still so unknown. We are not gods, and cannot see the distance, and are often arrogantly unaware of how limited our perspectives are. Every human says in their heart, “if I were God…” and their vision is full of their ‘rightness’ and how they will bring it about, but God, the only one with authority to bring about ‘rightness’ goes to the cross. Grace, hope, love must abound, then, as we follow Jesus – who laid down his ‘rights.’ That’s what I’m aiming at, anyway. 

Gary Deddo | The Christian life and our participation in Christ’s continuing ministry – on avoiding the mistake of being “thrown back on ourselves” (with reference to T.F. Torrance and James Torrance):

By leaving union with Christ unacknowledged, all these other definitions and declarations leave us on a precarious perch. As James Torrance used to say, we can easily be thrown back on ourselves when we concentrate on our response apart from grasping the truth, reality and actuality of our union with Christ. Jesus Christ, when viewed from within an emphasis on our making a response, can appear to be at a great distance from us. The work Christ does can be regarded as largely in the past and relatively external. The grace of God can begin to seem merely as if it provided us with a new potential. We can end up thinking: “By grace God made the Christian life possible by forgiving our sins and giving us a new status of being in right relationship with him. Now all we have to do is appropriate, apply or actualize that new potential life that God has graciously given us.” So we turn with enthusiasm (or perhaps in desperation) to one of those emphases, visions, tasks or goals I noted earlier. We attempt by our efforts to make the Christian life practical, relevant, and vital. That is how I went about my Christian life for many years—as if God in Christ had given me a potentially new life. It was up to me to make it real and actual.

What I have often observed in the Christian church is that whether conservative or liberal, traditional or contemporary, emergent or megachurch, Christians basically live as if saved by grace but sanctified by works. We depend on our own efforts, choices, accomplishments or zeal. Grace is where we start the Christian life, but often we somehow end up “thrown back upon our own resources” and feeling under a great burden. Then we become first unimpressed, then perhaps depressed, and finally even coldly cynical about the whole Christian life itself. A great part of the problem is that we often have not grasped and we often have not been taught, either in our churches or in our seminaries, about the full extent of the grace of God extended to us in Jesus Christ. We have failed to hear what union with Christ means and of our participation in the continuing mediatorial ministry of Christ.

The Table | Radical Un-Selfing: On Christian Humility and Dependence on God – an interview with Kent Dunnington (click through for the podcast and full transcript) – in a culture obsessed with “selfing” the idea of “un-selfing” may seem nothing short of heretical.

KD: I think the way to think about eternal life is the eternal life of Jesus is the eternal manifestation of a life of self-sacrifice.

Jesus is eternally sacrificing himself. We know this, because we have Eucharist, which is Jesus’s eternal self-sacrifice. Resurrection is the affirmation that self‑sacrifice need not lead to death. What it is to live in the devastated world after the fall is to live in a world where to give of ourselves is to open ourselves up to the vulnerability of death.

We think of self-sacrifice as necessitating an eventual death. The good news of the gospel, I take it, is that we really can give of ourselves without any limitation, in the hopes of discovering resurrected life, which is the discovery that endless self-sacrifice is actually eternal life. …

But what of the oppressed and abused? Do we enjoin them to self-sacrifice, and if so, how?

KD: Suppose we say that our destiny is to be eternally self-sacrificial, is to always be willing to give of ourselves without limit. Isn’t that dangerous?

Doesn’t that simply perpetuate systems of oppression in which we keep people in their place by saying, “Oh, it’s good to be humble. It’s good for you to sacrifice your well-being for the good of others”?

I think this has been, if not the most philosophically or theologically powerful critique, it’s certainly the most socially powerful critique of the whole tradition of Christian humility.

It’s been brought with a special force by contemporary feminist and womanist theologians who rightly point out that if you are in a system in which a powerful group, contingently powerful, they just happen to be the ones in power, that their power depends on keeping others from assuming positions of power, humility is a great virtue to have in your back pocket to keep them down, because what you can do is preach the virtue of humility and inculcate it in the oppressed, and have them essentially become complicit in their own oppression.

It’s a really powerful critique. I think the response to the critique goes something like this. Yes, all of that is right. Humility, like most virtues, is ripe for abuse, and has indeed been abused in Christian history in all the ways that feminist and womanist theologians allege.

What follows from that, I think, is that we must be extremely careful about enjoining other people to the kind of radical humility that Christianity, I think, calls us to. That in fact the project of embarking on the quest for humility is one that has to be undertaken voluntarily.

It has to be an invitation that one receives from God. We are never in a position to recommend it or enforce it on others. The tradition in which the pursuit of this kind of radical humility has been most prominent is the monastic tradition, which is a voluntary tradition.

People have read the texts of Benedict and the things he said about humility, sometimes with horror, not remembering that all the people that he’s speaking to are people who have voluntarily entered into the path of knowing self-sacrifice.

To take the things that Benedict has said about humility and to preach them from the pulpit, or to speak to our kids as though these are things that we can require and enjoin of them, not only does it not lead to genuine humility, but it’s profoundly destructive of the things that people need to develop as human beings.

My view is that humility has what I call a developmental trajectory. To put it in the simplest terms, one has to develop what are now called the proper prides in order to have anything to give away at all. In other words, one must have developed an ego that one can then learn to sacrifice.

If humility is enjoined in such a way that one never even develops the proper prides, what you have is not a humble person, but a person whose very humanity has been stripped from them.

I think in terms that I learned from Bonhoeffer, distinguishing between the penultimate and the ultimate. Sometimes, the penultimate is at odds with the ultimate, but it’s nevertheless important that we preserve it and honor the penultimate, as long as it’s kept in its proper place.

I do think that pride, there is a passage in Simone Weil where she pictures pride as the garments that we placed on our nakedness in the Garden of Eden. If you think about those garments, they are a concession to the fall, but they’re also important for our future survival.

We are now vulnerable human beings, but it’s no part of our future to be clothed in Heaven. The garments are penultimate and a recovery of paradisal nakedness is ultimate. Similarly, I think humility, the Christian virtue of humility, is a peek into our ultimate destiny.

The proper prides are important in their place, but I think we make a mistake as Christians if we baptize pride in such a way as to make it part of our eternal destiny. I really think our goal is to get over ourselves entirely.

This is why the scripture’s portrait of Jesus is so disconcerting to us. It tells us almost nothing about Jesus’s subjectivity, but we want to know about Jesus’s subjectivity, because we think that’s what’s most interesting about him.

As we think it’s what’s most interesting about ourselves than anyone else. But scripture show absolutely no interest in the subjectivity of Jesus. It shows nothing but interest in his complete reliance on obedience to and service to the Father.

I do think it’s part of the frightening challenge of Christianity that what we sometimes take to be the most interesting project of our lives, namely to get a clear grip on who we are, is in fact no part of our future. …

I do think that humility is ultimately the gift that frees us from that selving project, as I call it. Rowan Williams talks about the history of radical Christianity, focusing particularly on the desert monks as they are engaged in the crazy project of un-selfing, of trying to leave behind the ego-bound self, trusting that reliance on God and one another is enough. …

What role does suffering play in the project of selfing and unselfing?

I learned that when in the midst of profound suffering, that vision I have of a noble and impressive Kent begins to be torn away from me. This happens in chronic suffering, or people who are living with a terminal condition.

It happens particularly with people whose suffering makes them, as we say, a shell of themselves. Then what you discover, as Simone Weil said, is that you have no resources to love. That’s because you have no more pride.

The question for me is, is it possible to go on in those situations? If humility is a genuine virtue, where we know how to go on, even though we don’t know who we are, it means that we can continue to love, even when everything we thought we needed to be an impressive self is under challenge or is gone.

I talk in the book a little bit about what people learn in L’Arche communities, where they learn that people who don’t even have a self-concept are in fact the most powerful conduits of genuine love.

Now, there’s some skepticism about that. You might say, “Well, that’s just sentimental BS. People are reading into that experience what they want.” What I want to know is, theologically, why would you say that?

Why would you not think that these human beings, who are born in the image of God, who have no obstacles to their being a perfect conduit of God’s love, are in fact our example in that respect? I think humility points us in something like that direction.

If that’s true, it’s frightening to undergo suffering, but it allows us to think about suffering, extreme forms of suffering which cause humiliation, as an opportunity, as an invitation that we can learn how to love in the absence of pride.

Which is just to say that we can learn how to live off of the love that God has for us.

See also KD: An Introduction to Humility

Plough Quarterly: An interview with Fr. Emmanuel Kantongole on Deep Solidarity:

Katongole: The Eucharist is the bedrock of Christian memory, and, because memory is a part of the imagination, of the Christian imagination. In the Eucharist, all the elements of the Christian story come together. It proclaims the good news: The new creation is here! The Eucharist draws us into remembering the past, what God has planned, and what he continues to do. It also draws us to remember the future. It reminds us where we are and where the story is headed. It locates us.

Saint Paul says, over and over again, “In Christ God has been reconciling the world.” It is through Christ that this reconciliation happens: the Eucharist helps us remember his suffering, death, and resurrection. We remember the institution at the Last Supper, the day before he died: he took the bread and he blessed and broke it and gave it; he took the wine and he blessed it and gave it. And then they ate. That is the memory that shapes the lives of Christians. It is the taking, the giving thanks, the breaking, the giving, the eating, and then the sending forth: Go! Do this in memory of me. Go into the world!

I think this is what is unique about the Christian story, shaping lives that are Eucharistic. We must first receive, before we even try to do. That’s what I find so frustrating about so many discussions of reconciliation and forgiveness. When I talk to people about forgiveness, they are immediately interested in their agency: “How can I forgive?” they ask. “What are the steps?” I want to say, “Wait a minute, that is not how the story begins.” It begins with God’s reconciliation, and with us not as the agents but as the recipients of God’s reconciliation and forgiveness. The problem is that quite often we don’t think there is anything wrong with us. We think the problem is that other guy. But we ourselves have needed that forgiveness, and it has been given to us, as a gift.

In the Eucharist we receive everything we need as a gift. And we don’t have to pretend any longer that we are not needy, that we did not need that forgiveness, that love. Perhaps what we need to be doing more and more is to draw up examples, stories of people who are living into that forgiveness, as what the church looks like.

Tara Isabella Burton at Comment Magazine: Postliberal Epistemology – This piece is long and more of an academic read. But at the same time important for those who wish to tackle it.

Burton astutely points to something endemic within our current moment as we continue to pay dividends on past cultural/philosophical trends and the individualism which became the very air we breath, and is thus invisible to us – that is:

“We all want to know and be known, but nobody today knows how.”

My prediction is that the intuitive sense of this will only grow more acute as we are revealed to be powerless up against our isolating antagonisms and codependent tech addictions … and as the expressive individualism of our late/post/most-modern age (or whatever it is that we are calling our current cultural moment these days) joins forces with the algorithmic individualism of our (anti)socially-mediated lives. Burton’s theological prescription at the end focusing on on our mutual creation in the image of God and the incarnation of Christ is appropriate and points in the right direction, but still I think incomplete.

Needed as well is an account of our union with the divine triune life of the Father, Son, and Spirit (participatio dei) intimately connected to Incarnation, Imago Dei, and Incorporation into the life of Christ in the power of the Spirit. Yet, such a communal reality produced by such a triune union is by definition beyond our ability to self-actualise or self-create. It is not we who have made ourselves, and the notion that it is we who can create the kind of community that will rescue us from our isolation needs to be thoroughly deconstructed. Remember, we all want to know and be known, but nobody knows how.

But we are not left hopeless! None of us need to exhaust ourselves on the treadmill of self-help any longer. Bonhoeffer reminds us:

“Christian community is not an ideal which we must realise; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (Life Together, 38).

Only the triune God revealed in Christ through the Spirit can rescue us from our self-isolations and bring into being the embodied, resilient hopefulness of Christ-Existing-As-Community.

A Prayer for All Saints Sunday:

Almighty God,
you have knit together your elect in one communion 
and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord:

Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints 
in all virtuous and godly living,

that we may come to those ineffable joys 
that you have prepared for those who truly love you;

through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns,
one God,
in glory everlasting.