Monday, April 15, 2013

What's Really Ailing Us?

So does a commitment to a theology of the "principalities and powers" entail a radical paradigm shift for Christian theology in the West? Or is some sort of adjustment of the main line all that is required?

A starker way to pose my question might be: Is Augustinian anthropology dead?

Walter Wink proposes (Somewhere. I can't recall where -- probably several somewheres) that the recovery of New Testament depictions of principalities and powers, the demythologizing (or de-supernaturalizing) of these P&Ps, and the radical reinterpretation of this language in terms of a new type of biblical realism that address contemporary society and politics, represents a new wave of Christian thought -- the future of authentic theology, in fact.

After reading the work of William Stringfellow off and on for the past three years, I'm tending to think he would have agreed with Wink. Stringfellow doesn't cite sources often, and mapping his dependence upon theological figures would be a tricky business, but somewhere (again, I can't remember where) he expresses his admiration for Augustine and Luther.

To be sure, Stringfellow's portrayal of radical grace seems to me to be well in line with the Reformers and their Augustinian roots. One might also plausibly read Stringfellow as defending a modern version of sola scriptura -- stripped, to be sure, of any inerrantist or fundamentalist presuppositions.

Nonetheless, it seems to me, one major piece of this Augustinian-Lutheran-Reformed legacy is basically discarded in Stringfellow's work: The anthropology of the divided/bent/bound will, the human heart turned in upon itself (incurvatus in se), and the hamartiology (account of sin) and soteriology that flow of of these ideas.

Stringfellow, in my reading, radically redirects theological discourse away from traditional tropes of sin and salvation and the classic Western preoccupation with evil that traces back (at least) as far as Augustine's row with the Manicheans. Instead, in Stringfellow, the basic problem that emerges is idolatry -- which he understands to be noetic and existential bondage to the fallen P&Ps, and, through their mediation, to death itself, the ultimate power and paradigm of all that opposes God and God's good creation.

Now, again, one can point to Luther's profound meditations on Christ as victor (as Aulen showed us long ago in his classic Christus Victor), a lively sense of Sin, Death and the Devil as our cosmic-existential enemies -- and even the Law, too, to the extent that it is bent to serve those powers (the 1535 Galatians is a good place to see these themes played out).

But Luther -- and Calvin too, in a big way -- have also this notion of sin as a corruption of the will, something more than, or distinguishable from, bondage to powers conceived to be "external" to the self, the realm of the non-human or the demonic. And this is precisely what -- at least according to the impression which I've gotten so far -- Stringfellow gets rid of or perhaps, at least, plays down.

Are there, then, two separate strands within Western atonement theology that don't sit well together, that can be distinguished, or perhaps even are mutually exclusive? Such an inquiry raises some key fundamental questions, and I can't explore all of them here.

Maybe this example will make the point at issue a little clearer: Stringfellow insists that the P&Ps are created by God (or the "Word of God" to use the language he eventually would prefer) and not by human beings. What makes this claim odd is that the P&Ps include institutions, ideologies and images. But don't human beings create these, in some sense, even if such entities do take on a life and a power of their own that transcends the intentionality of human agents (and who can deny this)?

But if there is a "fall" of the P&Ps that is somehow anterior to or independent of subjective human agencies, and if, consequently, all of us are tied up in the webb of these P&Ps that serve as "acolytes of death" (to use Stringfellow's pregnant phrase), does the traditional problem of human culpability dissolve?

What the Jesuits were unable to destroy of Augustine's old-school anthropology, the Enlightenment and Romanticism pretty much demolished. Then Schleiermacher gives classic dogmatic expression to a modern, post-Augustinian framework in his Christian Faith. So I'm used to the notion that Augustine's notion of the bound will is basically dead in the oldline Protestant churches (and perhaps also in many of the "evangelical" churches too). If you bring up a the topic of total depravity, most Episcopalians will look at you like you have lobsters crawling out your ears. (There are exceptions, especially among readers of Robert Capon and Paul Zahl.)

Or am I trying to impose concerns on Stringfellow that don't do justice to what he was trying to do -- what he often does so beautifully: Retrieve powerful themes from the Bible to address concrete struggles in church, society and politics.

But these two conceptions of the human (and cosmic) predicament -- if they must be distinguished -- must go back to some source deep in the tradition. I seem to remember there was a New Testament writer who talked both about the cross and resurrection of Christ as the defeat of the powers of sin and death and also explored the problem of the divided will. Perhaps his writings might shed some light on my questions.

Now what was his name?

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