What is more…

an excercise in getting to the point

Tag: Justice

Love & Justice (5) – Niebuhr’s Nature & Destiny of Man, vol. 1.

For this post I would like to do something a little different than usual. I want to compare Reinhold Niebuhr’s general structure of theological anthropology, with special attention to his doctrine of sin, with work done in the sociology of knowledge by Peter Berger and Arnold Gehlen. As I hope to make clear presently, Niebuhr’s anthropology tracks very closely with Berger and Gehlen’s conception of man’s condition in modernity. The basic question I would like to pose is this: does this fact indicate that Niebuhr’s theological anthropology is conditioned by his location in modernity? Or, if it is indeed a true description of anthropology, then what implications does Berger and Gehlen’s description of modernity have for the modern person’s prospects for overcoming sin?

I will begin with Gehlen and Berger. According to Arnold Gehlen, compared to other species in the animal kingdom, human beings are particularly unfinished at birth. They do not have a developed instinctual apparatus to guide their behavior. They do not know when they are in danger, when their existence is threated, or how to protect themselves. Because of this fact, humans must build institutions—patterns of thought, behavior, and social relationships. These institutions do for human beings what instincts do for other animals in the world; they provide a framework for the social defense against the contingencies of nature. According to Gehlen, human experience is essentially divided into two parts: (a) the background part of our experience that is taken-for-granted, and (b) the foreground part of our experience, in which we think, reflect, ponder, and deliberate. In traditional (pre-modern) societies, most of human life took place as background; it was mostly taken-for-granted. With modernity we have the movement of more and more of human experience into the foreground. Things that were previously taken-for-granted now become a matter of choice. Berger, building on Gehlen, has pointed to the way in which this proliferation of choice changes the way in which each person relates to their own self. The proliferation of choice increases the existential anxiety as each person must calculate their own “life-plan,” simultaneously relating to a plethora of possible future worlds. The plurality of choices is, according to Berger, an inherently destabilizing force. Further, there are fewer and fewer stable institutions in modernity than there were in traditional societies. Religion, which once serves as a cohesive social factor, is now something that one chooses, based on “religious preference.” One must choose, a condition Berger refers to as “the heretical imperative.”[1]

Let us move to Niebuhr. According to Niebuhr, humankind is made both in the image of God, and as a creature of God. This means three things, in particular. First, humans have a spiritual dimension characterized especially by “self-transcendence.” Second, humans are weak, dependent, and finite creatures. Third, evil in human beings is a consequence of their “inevitable though not necessary unwillingness to acknowledge [their] dependence, to accept [their] finiteness and to admit [their] insecurity” (150).[2]  Humans are “insecure and involved in natural contingency,” and, instead of trusting God to take care of them, they “seek to overcome insecurity by a will-to-power which overreaches the limits of human creatureliness” (178). The problem is an inability to hold together self-transcendence and finitude under the trust in God. “Since he is involved in the contingencies and necessities of the natural process on the one hand and since, on the other, he stands outside of them and foresees their caprices and perils, he is anxious. In his anxiety he seeks to transmute his finiteness into infinity, his weakness into strength, his dependence into independence” (251).

The parallels between Niebuhr, on the one hand, and Gehlen and Berger, on the other, are striking. Both stress the condition of contingency and vulnerability that humans find themselves in. Both also stress the fact that humans are able to transcend their own immediate lived-reality and imagine alternative possible realities. Finally, both stress the anxiety that inevitably comes along with this combination of factors. The difference is that, for Gehlen and Berger, the confluence of contingency and freedom has been greatly expanded because of the facts of pluralism and choice. For Niebuhr, freedom and finitude are basic characteristics of the human situation, made clear in both the biblical narrative and in our experience of history. The answer to the anxiety that Niebuhr offers are theological virtues of faith, hope, and love—each of which comes to us as both a requirement and an ideal, but never as a fully achievable reality (271). Berger and Gehlen, are more diagnostic, and less interested in offering any “solutions” or theological explanations of the anxiety that results from contingency and choice.

The question I am left with is the following: if Gehlen and Berger are right about their description of the movement of more and more human experience from the background into the foreground (what they call “deinstitutionalization”), then what does this mean for Niebuhr’s theory of sin? A skeptic might reply that this demonstrates that Niebuhr is falling into the trap of being overly influenced by the spirit of the times. His theological scheme is merely a “projection” (Feuerbach) of the modern condition, or an instance of “natural theology” (Barth), in the bad sense. Or, alternatively, it may be the case that Niebuhr’s description is, in fact, both biblical and true to experience. If this is so, then it might be the case that Gehlen and Berger are pointing to an aspect of modernity that would intensify the “temptation to sin” that Niebuhr so eloquently describes. Perhaps the modern person finds herself in a unique situation, in which the anxiety of freedom and finitude is heightened, and her proclivity to sin in order to escape or deny this condition is also heightened.


[1] See especially Peter Berger, The Homeless Mind, chapter 3 and The Heretical Imperative, chapter 1.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny of Man. All in text references are from this work.

Love & Justice (4) – Tillich’s Love, Power & Justice

What is the relationship between love and justice? So far we have considered the perspectives of Kierkegaard, Brunner, and Rauschenbusch. For Kierkegaard, love and justice are antithetical, insofar as justice seeks one’s due and love “seeks not its own.” For Brunner, love and justice relate to completely different spheres of existence; justice applies to the sphere of the created “orders,” love serves both as the “motive” force behind Christian participation in justice, and as the rule of action within the sphere of interpersonal relations. For Rauschenbusch, love is the “only working principle” in human relations because it leads to solidarity and justice. For Rauschenbusch, then, love and justice are ultimately both ways of talking about the solidaristic Kingdom of God. With Paul Tillich we have an interpretation of love and justice that is closer to that of Rauschenbusch, insofar as both reject a stark antithesis between the two concepts, but Tillich’s analysis also differs in dramatic ways from Rauschenbusch.

Tillich’s methodology is reflected in the structure of Love, Power, and Justice. After identifying problematic “confusions” in popular understandings of each of the three concepts, Tillich’s next three chapters offer “an ontology” of love, power, and justice, respectively. The final three chapters analyze the relations between love, power, and justice in three ethical “relations”—between persons, within groups, and before God. Tillich moves from ontology to ethics. This means that he grounds his understanding of the relation between love and justice (and power) in an analysis of how each concept relates to “Being itself.” Love is basically a drive toward reunion of what has been separated from an original unity of being (25). Power is being “realizing itself with increasing intensity and extensity” (35). Justice is the “form” adequate to being in reunion, i.e. love (62). Given this method, which presupposes an original unity of everything in “Being itself,” it is not surprising that the basic relation between love and justice (and power) is a “unity.”

Perhaps the most innovative and puzzling aspect of Tillich’s book is his description of “creative justice.”[1] The classical definition of justice (“to each his due”) and the more modern conception of justice as equality, when considered from the perspective of the “form” of being in its drive toward reunion, are shown to be of only limited value. While Tillich doe not describe them as such, they are seemingly “lower” levels of justice. At the most basic level, justice is simply the recognition that is due to something that exists by virtue of the intrinsic power of being within it. At another (higher?) level, justice recognizes various deserts of the other; “attributive justice attributes to beings what they are and can claim to be. Distributive justice gives to any being the proportion of goods which is due to him; retributive justice does the same, but in negative terms” (64). The final form of justice is creative justice, which is arguably the highest, insofar is it is necessary to explain how God can act justly precisely in his mercy and forgiveness. “God is not bound to the given proportion between merit and tribute. He can creatively change the proportion” (66).

The great benefit of Tillich’s description of “creative justice” is that it allows us to more easily understand how God can be both merciful and just at the same time. In forgiving the unjust, God is not laying aside justice, he is expressing it. The problem, however, once Tillich redefines justice in this way, is that justice is not longer recognizable as justice. Remember that justice, for Tillich, is the “form adequate” to the reuniting of what is separated. Justice, then, is simply “the form in which and through which love performs its work” (71). Tillich has laid aside the tension between love and justice by defining one form of justice (creative justice) as the “ultimate meaning” of justice, and subsuming this form of justice to love.

Problematically, however, we are not free from the original tension. It seems that Tillich has actually shifted the tension between love and justice into the concept of justice itself. For what happens in forgiveness? “More exactly one should speak of the resignation of proportional justice for the sake of creative justice” (65, italics added). In essence, Tillich is saying that the ultimate meaning of justice is love, and so love triumphs over (merely proportional) justice.[2]

The other problematic aspect of Tillich’s concept of creative justice is that it makes classical atonement theories superfluous. For Tillich, creative justice has the ability creatively change the proportion between merit and tribute. But one is left with the question: exactly how does it do this? Does it not cost something  to the one who forgives? If God can simply change the proportion by divine fiat, then the substitutionary character of the atonement is no longer needed. The atonement, for Tillich, becomes a “symbol of the divine love, participating in the destruction into which it throws him who acts against love” (115). This solidaristic conception of the atonement is similar to that of Schleiermacher and Rauschenbusch. With Tillich’s atonement, this suffering-with is a wholly gracious way for God to reveal what God is doing by setting-aside proportional justice for creative justice, but is not in any constitutive of creative justice; God might just as well have creatively changed the proportions without necessarily suffering-with humanity in Christ. Ultimately, for Tillich, the incarnation and cross are incidental to God’s forgiveness.


[1] Interestingly, in terms of structure, “creative justice” seems to serve as a sort of hinge between the two main sections of Love, Power, and Justice. The first half (ontological) ends with justice, and the second half (ethical) begins with justice.

[2] Here we see the significance of Paul Ramsey’s interpretation of Tillich’s scheme. According to Ramsey, Tillich’s “creative/transforming justice” is actually love-transformed justice, or justice in the service of agape love.

Love & Justice (3) – Rauschenbusch’s Theology for the Social Gospel

Periodically, in the history of the church, there comes a time when the dominant way of looking at things becomes limited and begins to obscure essential elements of the gospel of Christ. When this happens, the voice of a prophet is desperately needed. Walter Rauschenbusch was such a prophet. Against a version of the Gospel that can be describes as “merely personal,” he rightly pointed to the “social gospel” and its necessary implications for the communal life of a society. “The social gospel calls for an expansion in the scope of salvation” (11, emphasis added).

Rauschenbusch’s Theology for the Social Gospel is important for any study of the relationship between love (agape) and justice in the Christian tradition. Rauschenbusch holds together love and justice by subsuming both under two key concepts: “solidarity” and “the Kingdom of God.” I will examine each in turn.

For Rauschenbusch, one of the chief characteristics of sin is selfishness, seeking after one’s own welfare at the expense of the welfare of others. Because this is the chief characteristic of sin, it must also be that from which Jesus saves. Redemption, according to Rauschenbusch, necessarily reorients our aims from our own welfare to the common good (98-99). This means that solidarity is the mark of a true Christian (109).

According to Rauschenbusch, religion and ethics [or love and justice?] are not separate realms but are “blended” (14). This is only the case, however, where the idea of the “Kingdom of God” is recognized and sought after (140). My own interest in Rauschenbusch’s work lies, in particular, in his idea of the Kingdom. What is its nature? For Rauschenbusch the Kingdom is that which Jesus preached and initiated in his life. The Kingdom of God is defined as “humanity organized according to the will of God” (142), and according to Rauschenbusch this entails freedom for all, love, unity, and non-exploitation. This Kingdom is both a “realm of love” and a “commonwealth of labor” (54). This means that all exploitation, whether political or economic, is excluded from the beginning. This kind of injustice has no place in a society ruled by love (273).

Rauschenbusch’s idea of the Kingdom highlights the relationship between ethics and eschatology: how is human action conditioned by conceptions of the relationship between time and eternity? It is at this point that ambiguity creeps in to Rauschenbusch’s theology. For Rauschenbusch the kingdom is both “now” and “not-yet.” It was “initiated” by Jesus, but it is not fully realized. As an ideal toward which we should strive, the Kingdom is “always pressing in on us” (141). So far; so good. This tension, I believe, is present in any Christian conception of the Kingdom, and rightly so. For it gives attention to the promises of a “new age” that was present in Christ and in his life, but also promised in a more fully realized way at the parousia. This “in-betweenness” was recognized as early as Augustine, who rejected the idea that the Christianization of the Roman Empire could be equated with the coming of the Kingdom of God.[1]

The ambiguity lies in whether the Kingdom of God is a historical reality or not. Contrary to popular belief, even though Rauschenbusch declares that the social gospel “expands the scope of salvation,” he did not believe that social life and social institutions could be completely redeemed, for the Kingdom has no consummation in history (227). If the Kingdom can never be completely achieved, then perhaps the Kingdom occurs to the degree that social institutions are organized according to the will of God. This, however, would seem to reduce the Kingdom into an ideal toward which we strive, and this is something that Rauschenbusch rejects. “The Kingdom of God is not a concept nor an ideal merely, but an historical force” (165)—one that Jesus “establish[ed]” (150) on earth. Rauschenbusch advocates “millennial hope” (224) in a Kingdom that occurs developmentally (225), but “has no final consummation” (227). Such a view resonates with a Scheiermacherian picture of an historical development of the God-consciousness of humankind through the organic growth of the church, a process that approaches consummation asymptotically without ever reaching fulfillment. This, it seems to me, does transform the Kingdom in an ideal to be pursued, rather than a reality to be hoped for. In the Old and New Testaments, the picture of the Kingdom seems more like the latter than the former.

Rauschenbusch was a prophet of social consciousness. The spirit of prophecy is needed from time to time, as it was in Rauschenbusch’s day. But the prophet, because of his polemical and rhetorical attitude, necessarily highlights some things at the expense of others. Rauschenbusch rightly opposed a “merely personal” gospel. While he did not, therefore, propose a “merely social” gospel, his invective leads in that direction, and became influential in some expressions of Christianity that equate the good news of Jesus Christ with an ideal of social justice, without the hope that the Kingdom inaugurated by Christ will find its fulfillment, by the power of God, here on earth. To hold together both of these impulses, Rauschenbusch needs a much more robust Christology, one that acknowledges the cosmic Christ of Colossians 1:16-20: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and though him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”


[1] C.f. Robert Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, 1989.

Love & Justice (2) – Brunner, “The Divine Imperative”

In The Divine Imperative Emil Brunner describes the relationship between the demands of agape and those of justice (i.e. the “orders”) in, what Paul Ramsey calls, characteristically “dualistic” terms.[1] There are, according to Brunner, within existence as we know it, certain “created orders” (e.g. community, family, state, etc.) that form the presupposition for our daily lives as human beings. We experience these created orders as  “given,” and this, I believe, in two ways.

First they are “given” in that they precede us and are not consciously created by us; they are a natural product of human reason ordering human relations. In this first sense they are distinguished by Brunner as a separate realm from the realm of faith. They are the realm of “office,” as opposed to the realm of the “personal.” The former is the realm of justice, the latter the realm of love. But the former exists for the sake of the latter, which is its telos. Were it not for the natural orders of creation, which prevent human society from devolving into chaos, there would be no opportunity to show love to our neighbors: there is no love in the state of nature. But the “orders of creation” are also given to us by God, as part of his preservation of creation. While deeply tainted by sin, the orders of creation serve God’s purposes.

How are we to understand these orders of creation? At times it seems as if Brunner is advocating a fundamentally conservative view towards whatever social institutions happen to exist—so long as order is upheld, we must “first affirm” God’s providence through them. Such a view seems to leave itself open the worst type of conservatism and quietism—a perfect storm of Lutheran “two spheres” and Catholic “natural law” at their worst. This is the aspect of Brunner’s theology that provoked Karl Barth’s famous “Nein!” Of course, Brunner is too good of a theologian to advocate this strong of a view of the orders of creation without simultaneously stressing the challenge that the gospel presents to the existing orders. Nevertheless, Brunner does say that the Christian’s first attitude toward the orders is affirmation, which can only be tempered later by protest and reform.

One problem with the “two-sphere” view that separates the “official” realm from the “personal” realm is that it undercuts the second move in the dialectic that Brunner is trying to uphold between affirmation and protest. Because the “orders” form the “vessel,” or institutional structure of society, which can only be “filled” with the content of love, it becomes very difficult to push against institutional norms that are fundamentally un-loving. One sees this, especially, in Brunner’s discussion of “Reasons of State” (Staatraison). Because the “official” realm is governed by human reason, and not by love, the state has its own “autonomy” that “cannot be governed and ought not be governed in accordance with the law of love” (462). While Brunner does not see this autonomy as absolute, it is difficult to see in what way love could possible set limits on the “reasons of state.” The state needs power to preserve order, but power comes (only?) through unjust means. According to Brunner, it is “for love’s sake” that men enter the realm of the state to preserve order, but how can one do something fundamentally unloving for loves sake? This paradox, I believe, comes close to irresolvable contradiction.

There may be a better way to think about the “orders of creation” that is also present in Brunner’s thought. In the Divine Imperative Brunner discusses the internal meaning and telos of the orders of creation. According to Brunner, the “orders of creation” exist ultimately for the sake of love. Through the lens of faith, the believer can come to see the orders as secular parables of the true community of agape. What they reveal to us is God’s intention to have us exist in mutual interdependence with one another, and therefore for one another. This more minimalist picture allows the orders to play a positive role, but not one that is entirely determined and regulated by autonomous reason. There is no autonomy to the orders as a separate sphere. Rather, the orders are seen as sinfully tainted attempts to order human relations in a just and loving manner. Insofar as they do so, they point forward to a fuller and deeper picture of human sociality—both with other humans and with God. Within this schema, however, they can and should be tempered by the Christian love ethic, which could work, in some sense, like leaven works through dough (Matthew 13:33).


[1] Ramsey, Nine Modern Moralists, 182.

Love & Justice (1) – Kierkegaard: Works of Love

One of the classes I am taking this fall is called Love & Justice in the Christian Tradition, with Professor Jim Childress. Over the course of the semester we will examine a number of different approaches to the relationship between Christian love (agape) and justice, a surprising difficult and complex topic. The first week is Kierkegaard (love and justice in sharp distinction).

In Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard draws a sharp distinction between erotic love (eros) and friendship (philia), on the one hand, and Christian love (agape) on the other. The latter is distinguished from the former insofar as it is non-discriminatory (universal and impartial), theocentric, a matter of inward conscience, and essentially self-sacrificial.

There are many aspects of SK’s account of Christian love that I find compelling. First, God is central here. In particular I find the idea that love’s hidden life, which springs from our inmost depths, is grounded in God’s own love within us (26-27), for God is love. This is exemplified in the life of Christ, whose love for humankind was “pure action” during every moment of his life. Second, while I am not sure what it is supposed to look like in practice, I do believe that the love commandment (“Love your neighbor”) is, at least potentially, universal in scope. Therefore, I am less worried than some people might be when SK states that Christian love “teaches love of all men, unconditionally all.” I recognize that SK, at times, comes close to making particular humans fungible—e.g. “Death itself cannot deprive you of your neighbor either, for if it takes one, life immediately give you another” (76). But, with Jamie Ferreira, I believe the claim that SK calls us to an overly-abstract love of neighbor easily misses the dialectical tension in Works of Love, as exemplified in the following quote: “equality appears in love’s humbly turning itself outwards, embracing all, yet loving everyone in particular but no one in partiality” (78, emphasis added). We are to guard against partiality only because it limits the scope of our love. Each and every person whom we are called to love is to be loved in particular. SK does not imagine a neighbor in abstracto; “At a distance one’s neighbor is only a figment of the imagination” (89, emphasis added). Finally, and there isn’t space to elaborate, but at least for now, I agree that love takes the form of a command, and therefore also the form of a duty. This does not mean, however, pace SK, that Christian love is only such insofar as we make it a matter of personal conscience, for I believe we can follow a command and fulfill a duty without knowing that we are doing so.

My main problem with SK’s account of Christian love is that it makes self-sacrifice essential to Christian love. For SK self-renunciation is “Christianity’s essential form” (68) and “Love is essentially sacrifice” (247, emphasis added).[1] What would it mean for agape love to be essentially self-sacrificial—as opposed, let us say, to being incidentally self-sacrifical? To say love is incidentally self-sacrificial is to suggest that love might require a renunciation of one’s own interests and desires. It could even suggest that love will likely require such sacrifice, but not because sacrifice is equal to love. When in love (agape) I focus on my neighbor’s welfare, I am called beyond my own interests (apart from my interest in love itself) in such a way that they become secondary to my neighbor’s interests. Insofar as I am focusing on her welfare (and her need) I am not at that time focusing on my own. There is an element of self-forgetfulness in such an other-focused love.  SK points to this element beautifully: “he who in love forgets himself, forgets his sufferings in order to think of another’s… such a person is not forgotten. There is one who thinks of him, god in heaven; or love thinks of him” (262). But notice, in this case, any self-sacrifice that occurs is derived from my focusing on the good of the neighbor, which is primary. Therefore, self-sacrifice is incidental, not essential, to this love. To make self-sacrifice essential to love is to say that it must be present any time love is present. But we can easily imagine acts of love, or relations of love, that are not marked at all times, by such self-sacrifice. To put it another way, to say that love is essentially self-sacrifice is to say that self-sacrifice is essentially loving. But this immediately strikes one as implausible. Self- sacrifice (and self-destruction) can be motivated by any number of factors, many completely unrelated to love. It is not the sacrifice of the self that makes Christian love what it is. Rather it is the focus on the welfare of the other that does so. While this will often entail self-sacrifice (e.g. when such love means putting the needs of the other first), it is not essential to such love (e.g. when there is no conflict between self-interest and the needs of the other).


[1] Incidentally, here is where we see the difference between love and justice. For justice gives to each his own; love seeks not one’s own (248). This seems to place love and justice in sharp antithesis. One question I am left with is this: does love seek another’s own? If this is so, is justice an instrument of love? Or, is love an instrument of justice?

Free Rice…

I have been spending my days studying for the GRE lately–trying to learn basic math concepts (again) and not-so-basic vocabulary. A friend told me about this cool website called http://www.freerice.com . Basically, for each question that you answer correctly, 10 grains of rice are donated to the United Nations World Food Program. What a great way to promote learning, help fight poverty and starvation and (hopefully) boost my GRE score (obviously their highest priority).

Check it out.