Monday, October 20, 2008

God is for Losers

No, John Loftus of Debunking Christianity hasn't gotten his wish - despite his prophetic (and, I might add, mildly complimentary, even if it did involve predicting that I'd lose my faith) pronouncement a couple of years ago that soon I'd be writing for him, my Christian faith is still stubbornly clinging to life. My blog, well, not so much.

As those of you who used to follow this blog no doubt know, I've been on a blogging hiatus to concentrate on my Thesis. It is that Thesis in fact, rather than a loss of faith, that is the catalyst for this post and the source of its title.

My Thesis - which at the moment suffers only from the intellectual inadequacies of its author - is an attempt, using the theologies of James Cone and John Cobb, to articulate the beginnings of a Process Liberation Theology. That's quite a trick, for more reasons than would fit here. But it is not an entirely hopeless project.

For starters, there is the hope posed by Cobb's theology itself. While Process thought has tended toward the ivory tower and the social detachment that accompanies it, Cobb's own work - including his landmark book Process Theology as Political Theology - has been very socially and politically engaged. He has weighed in on the subjects of both global and local economic injustice, racism, and the ecological crisis, to name just a few. So, at least - unlike some other Process figures - he doesn't need to be persuaded of the need for socially engaged theology.

In fact, he has argued that Process thought even has something of worth to offer socially and politically engaged theology: namely, its articulation of God. For instance, in Process Theology as Political Theology he wrote:

Where readers are not helped to arrive at a new concept of God, they will continue to hear in the word 'God' what that word has meant in tradition. These meanings have often been in tension with the thrust of political theology.

The "traditional" understanding of God than Cobb attacks here entails two ethically problematic assertions:

1. That God is external to, over and above creation, and

2. That God is omnipotent, all-powerful; with such power understood as irresistibility. That is, God is a power such that God cannot be prevented from doing what God wills.

These two assertions, held together, lend implicit and perhaps explicit support to unjust, hierarchical power differentials. To put it simply, if God is, as Elizabeth Johnson asserts, the central metaphor for any religious community, a metaphor that functions in that community, both shaping and expressing what that community "takes to be the highest good, the profoundest truth, the most appealing beauty;" then when God is a tyrant, tyranny has solid theological support.

Cobb's quote above, then, points to the need to reformulate not only the concerns of God, but even the very nature of God. It is not enough for God to be concerned with the poor, the weak, the outcast, the marginalized, the oppressed; God's very nature must pose a challenge to the hierarchical power structures that hold them down.

James Cone is aware of the ethical problems posed by the traditional theistic understanding of God, and especially of its use and abuse by the church of the dominant culture. In fact, he even expresses some sympathy for those who wish to discard the word "God" altogether, writing this in A Black Theology of Liberation:

Realizing that it is very easy to be co-opted by the enemy and the enemy's God-language, it is tempting to discard all references to God and seek to describe a way of living in the world that could not possibly be associated with "Christian" murderers. Some existentialist writers - Camus and Sartre - have taken this course, and many black revolutionaries find this procedure appealing. Reacting to the ungodly behavior of white churches, and the timid, Uncle Tom approach of black churches, many black militants have no time for God and the deadly prattle about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. Christianity, they argue, participates in the enslavement of black Americans. Therefore an emancipation from white oppression means also liberation from the ungodly influence of white religion.

This approach is certainly understandable, and the merits of the argument warrant a serious investigation. As black theologians seeking to analyze the meaning of black liberation, we cannot ignore this approach. Indeed it is quite intellectually tempting.

Thus, at least in 1970 when he wrote this, for Cone the word "God," which he said is "a symbol that opens up depths of reality in the world," had become so corrupted by its appropriation by an oppressive and racist power structure, that it may need to be discarded. "If the symbol loses its power to point to the meaning of black liberation, then we must destroy it."

Why then, doesn't Cone discard the word "God," a word that too often and for too many has meant, as I noted above, an irresistible tyrant sitting atop an unjust cosmic hierarchy? Why then doesn't Cone destroy the symbol that has been so corrupted by its association with power?

Simply put, because, in the experience of the oppressed, that symbol has not yet lost its power to point to liberation. And that experience is ultimately, often in spite of a great deal of pressing evidence, a hopeful one. Liberation theologies are, as best as I can tell, never without an eschatological vision, never without some vision of God's ultimate end and aim for creation, the liberation of the oppressed. And Cone's Black Liberation theology is no different. But Cone's eschatology, his view of the end, the ultimate aim, of creation - unlike the religion that white missionaries tried to instill in slaves - is not rooted in some pie-in-the-sky afterlife. It is rooted in the hope for not just a future but also a present change, and he makes this point forcefully in several places:

The eschatological perspective must be grounded in the historical present, thereby forcing the oppressed community to say no to unjust treatment, because its present humiliation is inconsistent with its promised future.

An eschatology that does not challenge the present order is faulty. If contemplation about the future distorts the present reality of injustice and reconciles the oppressed to unjust treatment against them, the it is unchristian and thus has nothing whatsoever to do with the Christ who came to liberate us...

Unless the future can become present, thereby forcing blacks to make changes in this world, what significance could eschatology have for those who believe that their self-determination must become reality NOW!

For Cone, then, the reality of that which the word "God" points to is found in the experience and the hope of the oppressed. The word is not to be discarded so long as it points to the power to bring the long-hoped for vision of liberation into reality, to make the future present, the "not yet" now.

This concept of God, this unpacking of the symbol presented us by the word "God," is not inconsistent with Cobb's challenge to the "traditional" understanding of God. While Cone does not here speak to, much less challenge, divine omnipotence, the very assertion that God stands on the side of the oppressed is, in and of itself, an implicit challenge to divine omnipotence.

That point finally brings me to the title of this unwieldy post. It is ultimately a scandal to say that God sides with the oppressed over and against their oppressors. It is, in fact, no less scandalous than the cross.

If God were all-powerful, with God's power being understood as a kind of irresistibility, then - assuming God is involved in creation, and cares about the ordering of human affairs - the social order would reflect God's favor. A God whose will must be done in human affairs is, in a world full of "winners" and "losers" (and a great many more of the later) a God who has preemptively sided with the "winners." Their power is given by and participates in God's power; their wealth, their social standing, their ability to impose their will on the social order, given to them by a God whose will must of necessity be done. Divine omnipotence thus, carried to its extreme, baptizes inequity.

In the face of this, Liberation theologians assert not that God doesn't play favorites, but that God's favorites lie at the bottom, not on the top. They assert, simply, that God is for the losers. Such a view necessarily conflicts with the traditional understanding of God's power, for if God is in fact a power such that God cannot be prevented from doing what God wills, then those whom God favors would not starve in the streets, or be gunned down by police, or lack access to clean drinking water, or be segregated, quarantined, ghettoized.

Process theology articulates a different understanding of God's power, and that understanding - one of the main subjects of my Thesis - ultimately aids the cause of liberation. Thus Process theology ultimately ought to be a Liberation theology.

Or, at least, that's what I hope to prove.

That Thesis is not without major complications, but that's what I'm working on.


Anonymous said...

Drat. Oh well. Maybe in the future.


Amy said...

That just makes sense, Chris. If we are serving a God who doesn't just care for the poor, but rather struggles alongside the poor, than that is necessarily a form of "process theology," because we're worshiping a God who struggles, who urges, and who sometimes gets thwarted. And that, my friend, is a God I can work with.

Garpu said...

Interesting. Are you going to put it up anywhere? I'd love to give it a read when it's done. I've always liked aspects of liberation theology, and it's a shame it got kind of a bum rap.

Sandalstraps said...


Good to see you here, but don't hold your breath!


Thank you.

Claudio keeps telling me that this aspect of liberation theology isn't really process, because process thought is more incrementalist whereas liberation thought looks for changes in sharp breaks; the difference, I suppose, between revolution and reform. We'll keep having that argument, I suspect, since I've asked him to be one of my readers.


Good question.

My hope is that this Thesis will be the basis for my doctoral dissertation, and also for my first book.

But that's quite ambitious!

I'll let you know how things turn out. In the meantime, my focus is on getting this project right, so that it can be the launching pad for my theological career.

So, I guess I'm saying that my hope is that I do this well, and then that it sees the light of day. If it does, then I'll send you a copy.