Sunday, February 27, 2005

The ME Project's Contained Kenosis

I finally managed to access a copy of Nancey Murphy and George F.R. Ellis's On the Moral Nature of the Universe. A fellow from Metanexus that I met last weekend at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Woodley Park recommended it to me after I told him about the paper I'm preparing for Communio (working title: The Kenotic Flow of Time).

The book unfortunately typifies the narcissism and shoddy scholarship into which the "science-religion dialogue" has degenerated (to put it briefly, religion is shy of challenging science's monopoly on objective reality). Though the Murphy-Ellis (ME) project begins with a brilliant connection, it quickly goes awry.

Murphy and Ellis attempt to ground ethics in a kenosis that they see reflected in the universe. Good enough so far. The term kenosis means "self-emptying" and its quintessential usage is in St. Paul's letter to the Philipians (2:5-8):

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied [ekenosen] himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (RSV)

For further discussion of the word, here's a Catholic Encyclopedia article on the subject and another resource on kenosis. (Both I found through google.)

In their introduction ME write:

God appeears to work in concert with nature, never overriding or violating the very processes that God has created. This account of the character of divine action as refusal to do violence to creation, whatever the cost to God, has direct implications for human morality; it implies a "kenotic" or self-renunciatory ethic, according to which one must renounce self-interest for the sake of the other, no matter what the cost to oneself. (xv, emphasis in original)

Pehaps you can see the problem already. (I mean the problem aside from the avoidance of the masculine pronoun to refer to Almighty God, who names himself our Father.) Their very definition of kenosis is a stunted, quasi-deistic version of "self-emptying." Self-containment instead of self-giving; Confuscius'

"Do not unto others and you would not have them do to you"

instead of Jesus Christ's Golden Rule,

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you";

hands off, instead of hands helping.

Moreover ME's definition makes no mention of the Incarnation, which St. Paul manifestly holds up as the primary way that Christ emptied himself. In fact the index reveals only one reference to the Incarnation in the entire book, and that in a long Yoder quotation used merely to bolster Jesus' authority for giving moral laws as divine (p. 183). Check out the Catholic Encyclopedia article and you'll see that in defining kenosis both Catholics and Protestants historically focus on the Incarnation.

The intellectual perspective of the book is similarly truncated and narrow. Granted I've only quickly thumbed through the book, but I haven't found a single reference (they're all in footnotes) from before 1940. For heaven's sake, it's been two thousand years since God took on human flesh and walked the earth: surely the perspectives on Christ of Christians before the 20th century carry some weight. Or can the past teach us nothing? Is our age the summit and summation of all that is good in human history?

This impoverishment is similar to the current social-justice idea that peace consists of a superficial "absence of war" instead of an integral justice before God and communion with His creation—what Jews mean by shalom and in English we call "the peace of Christ."

Perhaps the biographies of the authors illuminate the origins of the book's perspective. Nancey Murphy is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. George F.R. Ellis is a professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Capetown and a Quaker. Quakers are famous as pacifists. I don't know much of the Brethren, except what's on their webpage, which at first glance seems to emphasize a very this-worldly, social justice form of Christianity. I mean no derogation to either denomination by these observations, but simply to point out that ME seem to focus on a small slice of the Christian message that is apparently prominent in the theologies of their respective denominations—to the exclusion of vast, untapped oceans of Christian belief. In some sense I suppose ME, like all of us moderns, are trapped in a culture that, as Daniel Boorstin observes, merely reflects us back to ourselves, like a hall of mirrors . It's just a shame that we cannot empty ourselves of our self-involvement to look beyond the walls of our own egos and possibly glimpse Infinite Truth.


Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image : A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (Vintage; Rei edition, 1992).

Nancey Murphy and George F.R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).

For an excellent historical treatment of perspectives on Jesus, please see

Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven, Ct: Yale University Press, 1999).

(Pelikan is also author of an excellent history of the Christianity.)


Addendum (2005-03-08)

Just read a profile of Ellis in the January-February Science & Spirit. He's lived a generous life, having risked himself to expose "the pattern of unsolved assassinations of anti-apartheid activists" in his native South Africa. Details like this reveal that Ellis is actually better than his book.

8 comments:

Josh said...

Lawrence,

Regarding the paragraphs quoted below I believe you are saying something very important here. Can you direct me to any further reading along these lines of critique?

Thanks, Josh

Perhaps you can see the problem already. Their very definition of kenosis is a stunted, quasi-deistic version of "self-emptying." Self-containment instead of self-giving; Confucius'

"Do not unto others and you would not have them do to you"

instead of Jesus Christ's Golden Rule,

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you";

hands off, instead of hands helping.

...

This impoverishment is similar to the current social-justice idea that peace consists of a superficial "absence of war" instead of an integral justice before God and communion with His creation—what Jews mean by shalom and in English we call "the peace of Christ."

Lawrence Gage said...

Hi Josh,

I'm not sure exactly what you're looking for, but this eight-part essay might be illuminating on the point of self-giving: "The Uniqueness of Christianity"

I once heard a talk by Stanley Hauerwas in which he observed that the problem with the social justice movement is that they think they can produce a just society without just people. (Of course just = holy.) I imagine he has some writings out there, though I know of nothing specifically on this point. Perhaps it will be a little help to read a document explaining the Church's social teachings, which tend to contain a much more complete image of the human person than many "social justice" proponents would lead us to believe.

I hope I've address your concerns, but if not, please let me know.

LG

Josh said...

Lawrence,

I'll read what you sent but, in light of your quick response let me get your thoughts about something I wrote yesterday to my Yoder/Hauerwas professor.

I believe I am here defining the word "eucharism" the same way you might define the full application of kenosis. (Does that seem right?) I've been defining "eucharism" this context, "In remembrance of Jesus' generous life, crucifixion, and resurrection, eucharism
pursues the joy set before those faithfully broken in solidarity with others."

Here is what I wrote:

I agree that we must go back to the bible. I seem to find there a deeper commitment to nonviolence than you, Yoder, or Hauerwas. In scripture, and among the Mennonite founders, what I see most deeply is not a commitment to an expression of love in not doing violence. The deep expression of love is noncoercion - not simply nonviolence. God desires a loving relationship with us so much that we are given free will and not coerced into faithfulness. The early Mennonites recovered this radical freedom by requiring voluntary conversion, rejecting coercive force, and abstaining from participation in the coercive state. They, I think rightly, saw this as following the example of God, and the model of Jesus, who never sought to compel from others a desired outcome and forcefully rejected temptations to do so.

I'm increasingly concerned that Mennonites (including you, Hauerwas, and Yoder) are truncating Jesus' witness on both sides. Perhaps you remain committed to "nonviolence" - congrats, you will not do what Jesus didn't do, but are you committed to the foundation of nonviolence - which is noncoercion, or to going beyond nonviolence to do what Jesus did - which is eucharism? "Nonviolence" is a meaningful commitment, but when it is separated from the foundation of noncoercion and the fruit of eucharism we're left with a commitment that serves mostly to maintain a prideful sense of detached self-righteousness among people mired in safety.


Lawrence, I'd be happy for your thoughts.

Lawrence Gage said...

Josh, sorry for the delay.

I think I understand your concern--pacifists who have no problem with the meddling state (which of course is enforced with the sword hanging in the background).

Tell me if I'm misunderstanding, but noncoercion seems another form of refraining from action, and thus simply a more circumscribed form of nonviolence. It seems to me that while refraining from action can be an expression of kenosis, it is an example of "don't do unto others" and not the full expression of kenosis that I'm talking about. I mean, I can't imagine the actions of a Mother Theresa being motivated purely by a desire to refrain from coercion.

Please understand that I make no claim to expertise in the Mennonite Tradition (or the term "eucharism," of which I was wholly ignorant), but only in the (Catholic) Christian Tradition. That said, I wonder if you might be confusing nonviolence of the individual with nonviolence of the state. What would enacting the ethic of noncoercion involve for individuals? Would Maximillian Kolbe have volunteered to take the place of another in the Nazi death chamber based on either nonviolence or noncoercion? Kolbe seems to be a brilliant and inarguable example of kenosis, but I don't see how "abstaining from participation in the coercive state" could have motivated him.

LG

Lawrence Gage said...

Josh, consulting your original inquiry, I should add that justice for society may well require the state's abstention from action. For example, the proper ordering of families (the natural basis of all societies) doesn't require "a village" to intervene except in the most extreme cases. On the other hand, justice requires the state to (actively) protect the innocent from violence. The state also has an interest in a healthy moral climate that encourages an integral peace, but how to realize this goal is another matter; moral climate is more in the sphere of intermediate social bodies and religious institutions.

LG

Josh said...

LG,

Thanks so much.

I agree with you. Maximillian Kolbe and Mother Teresa are excellent examples of kenosis, as you've defined it, and they acted on convictions that could not be produced by a simple commitment to nonviolence or noncoercion. I think that part of your analysis is crucial for pacifists to hear.

But I'd like your thoughts about the words "kenosis" and "eucharism" (you've never heard of "eucharism" because I coined it as an attempt to describe something broader that I saw at the heart of our faith).

As I look at the word "kenosis" it seems to improve only slightly on "nonviolence" or "noncoercion" - at least in its traditional definition. Unlike the "non" terms it has the advantage of describing what Jesus did, not what he didn't do. But as I understand it "kenosis" typically is normally limited to the understanding that Jesus emptied himself of equality with God and humbled himself to the state of humanity.

This typical definition of "kenosis" gives us a one word description of the passage, "Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied [kenosis] himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness".

It is less clear that "kenosis" gives us the bigger picture of what Jesus did after kenosis unless the definition is broadened. Mother Teresa gives up privilege to become poor - but unless she does something bearing the fruit of that posture her humility is hardly notable. It is in the "became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross" activity of the faithful that we see the nature of a loving, interventionist, God. One can be humble without being a servant.

As a result I've taken to looking at, "this is my body broken for you," as a way of getting at the activity of Jesus and describing it as, "eucharism" – a quasi-Greek translation would be, "an act/s of great justice-surpassing generosity". Because this is a new word that draws upon the common word "Eucharist" one understands it as action in the way of the cross. This understanding would have to be grafted into the understanding of "kenosis". Eucharism is cross-bearing activity that nonviolently intervenes in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. Jesus did this for us, we are called to do it for others.

In this way "eucharism" describes the whole context of Philippians 2: 3-11 while "kenosis" describes a portion of the passage that is incorporated in "eucharism". My shorthand is that Philippians 2:5-8 instructs Christians to imitate Jesus who emptied himself of relative privilege, crossed the border between heaven and earth, and obediently joined oppressed people by suffering in confrontation with the principalities and powers even to the point of death.

As a result I would argue that, because Kolbe's loss of privilege was largely chosen by the Nazi's rather than self-chosen I'm less clear he engaged in deeply in kenosis. But in his self-substitution he was clearly engaged in eucharism of the kind we repeatedly find Jesus calling his followers to. “You’ve seen how Godless rulers oppress people, and their great ones are tyrants over them. That’s not for you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. See what I have done: I came to serve, not be served – and to give away my life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.” - Matthew 20:25-28

I'm interested in your thoughts. Do you see the need for a term broader than kenosis to describe both self-emptying and cross-bearing? Will Catholic folks be offended by the use of "eucharism" to describe the nature of Jesus' ministry and our calling? Is it helpful or confusing to describe Kolbe, Mother Teresa, and Jesus as "eucharists"?

Josh

Lawrence Gage said...

Josh, I'm reluctant to coin new words in general, as it usually signifies a failure to search adequately for an existing word to serve the purpose. In the present case I suspect kenosis may be adequate. In St. John's gospel, for example, Jesus is portrayed as very much in command of his own death (and traditionally Jesus is regarded as the priest of his own sacrifice, as in the letter to the Hebrews). Even in Phillipians, it is Jesus who "emptied himself," not "allowed himself to be emptied." I think the active notion of kenosis is also reflected in John's portrayal of Jesus' washing the disciples' feet--though perhaps charity is the best word here.

I don't see Catholic Christians being offended by the word itself, though I have to say that it sounds funny to me: "ism" words are usually bad (e.g., communism, rationalism) or at least more connected to an outlook on the world.

LG

Anonymous said...

LG,

Thanks so much.

Josh