To Be or Not To Be Religious: A Clarification of Karl Barth’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Divergence and Convergence Regarding Religion

Christian theologians Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) inherited a particular understanding of religion. In the broadly post-Kantian milieu, nineteenth-century thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, and Adolf von Harnack defined religion essentially, anthropologically, and subjectively. That is, religion has a particular essence, and is in some manner inalienable from our humanity. The emphasis of this conception is on the experience of the religious subject, instead of the knowledge of religion’s object (let alone its reality).[1] It is this notion of religion that both Barth and Bonhoeffer challenged.

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

However, despite the challenge they issued to their shared intellectual heritage, Barth and Bonhoeffer appear to diverge on both the definition and, therefore, the critique of religion – at least during the stage of Bonhoeffer’s 1943-45 imprisonment. While Barth unleashed a thoroughgoing theological critique of religion as faithlessness [Unglaube], he also insisted that humans were always and unavoidably religious.[2] Barth maintained that, despite the liabilities of religion, we cannot and should not be religionless because we are not truly godless.[3] Bonhoeffer, however, spoke in 1944-45 of a desirably “religionless Christianity.”[4] This, despite the fact that he ostensibly intended to carry forward Barth’s theological critique of religion – which was, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion, Barth’s “greatest merit” as a theologian.[5]

Whether Barth and Bonhoeffer share a common theological critique of religion has been subject to intense scholarly debate. To answer this question, we need first to ask another: What did Barth and Bonhoeffer mean by the term “religion”?  I propose that, although Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s definitions of religion diverge, their critiques of religion converge. Barth developed a systematic/dialectical concept of religion as self-justification, which the early Bonhoeffer inherited. However, in prison, Bonhoeffer developed a historical/psychological definition of religion as an inward and partial approach to human life. We must realize that these are two different definitions of religion, lest we compare apples to oranges, as it were, and conclude that Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critiques of religion also diverged.

Once we realize the divergent definitions, we can see the convergent critiques of a particular essence of religion: the self-justifying projection of a deity – a projection which calls for theological analysis. That is, for both Barth and Bonhoeffer, at the heart of “religion” is the impulse to posit and make room for a “God,” in order to secure our own identities by means of and over against this deity. Although religion, thus understood, is inescapable, it is not constitutive of our humanity.

[[To continue reading, download the PDF: To Be or Not To Be Religious.]]

—Notes—

[1] See Christine Axt-Piscalar, “Liberal Theology in Germany,” in The Blackwell Companion to Nineteenth-Century Theology, ed. David Fergusson (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 468–85; Ernst Feil et al., “Religion,” in Religion Past and Present: Encyclopedia of Theology and Religion, vol. 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 31–55; James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

[2] See Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, trans. Garrett Green (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2006). This is a new translation of §17 in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 280–361. Henceforth, all references to the Church Dogmatics will appear in the following form: CD I/1, 1.

[3] CD IV/1, 483.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Isabel Best et al., DBWE 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 361–67.

[5] Ibid., 429.

Christians and Wealth: An Argument for Downward Mobility

Great news! If you only have a minute to read about wealth, here’s my argument in a nutshell:


Outline of My Argument

  • Main Claim: American Christians should reduce their standards of living to what is necessary for human flourishing and give their excess resources beyond this standard to the poor and oppressed.
    1. God is the firmest advocate for human flourishing.
    2. The pursuit of wealth is spiritually dangerous and crippling.
    3. Our culture’s inclinations toward upward financial mobility go against the message of the New Testament and the life of Christ.
    4. God is revealed in Scripture to have a special concern for the poor and the oppressed.
    5. Christians will be held accountable for how they treat the poor and the oppressed.
  • Objections:
    1. This line of reasoning is advocating asceticism and is unbiblical.
    2. Christians have every right to keep what they have earned and to do what they wish with their excess funds.
    3. Because the poor are lazy, Christians should not feel pressured to give, in case their generosity is taken advantage of.
  • Warrant:
    1. Christians want to remain true to Scripture and submit to God’s way of life in order to find satisfaction.

(For more on Christianity, wealth, and poverty, see my topical study on what the book of Proverbs has to teach us about poverty.)

Still interested in reading about this contentious topic? Continue below.


Introduction

In our current context of wealth and poverty existing side by side in a milieu of materialistic consumerism, the Christian gospel of denying ourselves and making much of God is being abandoned for the American gospel of denying others and making much of ourselves.

American Christians have become content to live a baptized version of the American dream, a hollow faith that is about maximizing your earthly portfolio once your salvation is secured.

My main contention is that Christians in the United States should lower their standards of living to what is necessary for human flourishing and give their excess resources beyond this standard to the poor. In doing so, they will remain faithful to Scripture and discover a more satisfactory way of life.

Isn’t That Asceticism?

At this point, some may claim that I am trying to advocate for a form of asceticism. Continue reading “Christians and Wealth: An Argument for Downward Mobility”

Improvising Church & State: Overaccepting as a Synthesis of Anglican and Anabaptist Approaches

INTRODUCTION: ACCEPTING, BLOCKING, AND STATUS

From the church’s perspective, is the state a promising offer, or a threatening one? At the risk of breathtaking oversimplification, Anglicans have tended to adopt the former perspective, leading to accommodation, and Anabaptists the latter, resulting in separation.[1] Following Samuel Wells in his theological appropriation of terms from theatrical improvisation, the Anglican tradition has tended to respond to the promising offers (invitations to respond) of the state by accepting – maintaining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s).[2] The historical legacy of the Church of England has given Anglicanism, as Anderson notes, an “inheritance of a strong loyalty to the state and a conservatism that has led the church to promote the status quo more often than it agitates for reform.”[3] This inheritance from the established Church of England has coincided with a dual tendency to adopt a high status (a strategy for getting one’s way), in terms of relative privilege and political optimism, and a low status, in terms of frequent subservience in church-state relations.[4]

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

However, the Anabaptist tradition has tended to respond to the threatening offers of the state by blocking – undermining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s).[5] For many contemporary Anabaptists, as Joireman summarizes, “[T]he state has the function of ordering the social world, and the church should be the visible witness of believers, the primary affiliation of Christians, and separate from the state.”[6] Passively, blocking the state can be “a choice to shut oneself away and keep oneself unsullied by the world.”[7] Most often, drawing upon their sixteenth-century inheritance of facing persecution from Catholics and Protestants alike, Anabaptists have adopted a low status as somewhat of a fringe movement. Actively, however, blocking can be “a choice to take up arms,” as seen during the (admittedly rare) example of high status Anabaptist opposition during the Münster Rebellion of 1534.[8]

QUESTIONING GIVENS

Continue reading “Improvising Church & State: Overaccepting as a Synthesis of Anglican and Anabaptist Approaches”

Theology in Outline: What Do I Believe?

Theology is confusing enough, much more so when you attempt to summarize it all in a single essay! Nevertheless, such was my assignment in seminary in 2015. Here are the results.


“At the centre of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the centre of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the cross.” ~ Jürgen Moltmann[1]

Theology in Outline: A[n Attempted] Summary of the Christian Faith

We believe that, during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate, God died on a Roman cross.[2] We also believe that, the third day thereafter, Jesus of Nazareth – the same person who had been crucified – rose again from the dead.

How can these things be?

How can the immortal, transcendent, omnipotent One come to a weak, immanent end?

How can a dead human leave his grave, living?

At this point, we face a crucial choice between:

  1. the posited “God” of metaphysical theism and
  2. the revealed God of the Christian faith.[3]

Should we choose the former, our Christ, canon, and confession are irreducibly docetic – the true “God” is aloof, and merely play-acting, at best.

Yet, should we choose the latter, God is irreducibly, ineluctably Triune – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe, we trust that the Triune God is who God has revealed Godself to be. Continue reading “Theology in Outline: What Do I Believe?”

What does it mean to be human?

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

A clue to the answer lies in the asking of the question, for this act presupposes both a [human] subject and object in a dialectic of self-transcendence.

As Robert Jenson notes, “in asking this question, we somehow take up a vantage outside ourselves to make ourselves our own objects, get beyond ourselves to look back at ourselves.”1 The mystery of human existence is “that I am the subject of the object I am and the object of the subject I am.”2

But what do I see when I look at myself? At others? At God?

On our own, this self-transcendence leaves us humans at the mercy of our own divided desires – searching for definition. But with God, we receive our true humanity in the midst of divine discourse – finding significance in God’s recognition that we are true human beings. The failures of the former approach highlight the successes of the latter.

DIVIDED DESIRES

What Do I See When I Look at Myself?

One driven by desire.

Based upon human behavior, Sigmund Freud rightly notes that the primary human desire is for happiness, which involves the avoidance of the pain and the pursuit of pleasure.3

However, I quickly discover that my own body, the external world, and human relationships oppose my pleasure-drive.4 These oppositions help me to distinguish myself from that which is not me. For example, I am not the ground which hurts when I fall upon it. I am not my parents who fail to provide me with food the moment I desire it. I am not the external frustration and pain which I encounter. I am the one with the frustrated desires.

Despite the necessity of unfulfilled desires for human development in Freud’s framework, he recognized the unavoidable tensions which human beings experience as the result of two competing drives: Eros and Death.5

The former, Eros, is synonymous with libido, the desire for objects for the sake of preservation; while the latter, Death, leads to guilt when internalized, and aggression towards others.6

What Do I See When I Look at Others?

Ones who both inform and frustrate my desires.

Now, on one hand, this is necessary and beneficial for development. As a child, I learn to desire to eat and speak like my parents.

However, as Rene Girard observes, when these imitative or mimetic desires are frustrated, they lead to rivalries.7 When I desire something my neighbor possesses, and my neighbor prevents me from obtaining it, my desire for the object increases. Yet so does my neighbor’s desire, which produces tension between us.

Therefore, imitation distinguishes human desires from animal instincts for natural needs, yet simultaneously causes the conflicts of human existence. Mimetic desire “is responsible for the best and the worst in us, for what lowers us below the animal level as well as what elevates us above it.”8

Without a goal or telos to distinguish between right and wrong desires, I can only take cues from my neighbor and hope for a relative peace. Soon, “choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good,” as “all desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume.”9

When desire is turned in on itself, the pursuit of things (and not even the things themselves!) becomes my temporary respite from the restlessness of my existence. Since I cannot define myself, I go shopping instead.10 And yet, I cannot shop forever.

What Do I See When I Look at God?

If human self-transcendence in search of definition is an enclosed circle, the most I will ever see is a personified, projected “god” who is the opposite of my weaknesses and the abstracted absolute of my strengths.

Why even bother positing such a “God”? Because I live my life as a narrative awaiting a conclusion – death – which, although it grants meaning to the plot, prevents me, its main actor, from ascertaining its final significance!

As Jenson dryly observes, “if the conclusion of our play, hidden as we play our temporal stories in the impenetrable future of death, is nevertheless already enacted, then it can only be enacted in something like the mind of an author, standing above the play and holding what in the play are past and future in a superior present, in the ‘all-at-once-now’ of eternity.”11

And so I trade places with the indefinable God of past theological formulations, defining him against the contours of my own mysterious existence, which I expect him to justify and underwrite.12 Yet if I worship a mere projection, I am left on my own.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

To be at the mercy of our own divided, conflicted, and frustrated desires.

Karl Barth best describes the failures of self-definition:

“[T]he enterprise of setting up the ‘No-God’ (to justify our existence) is avenged by its success. […] Our conduct becomes governed precisely by what we desire. By a strict inevitability we reach the goal we have set before us. […] And now there is no higher power to protect [humans] from what they have set on high.”13

My idols (whether myself, my neighbor, or my “God”) exhaust and finally crush me. The attempt to establish my own identity isolates me from myself, whom I do not know; my neighbor, whom I love to hate; my “God,” whom I project; and God, whom I ignore.

DIVINE DISCOURSE

Who am I? What do I see when I look at God?

To solve the enigma of my own existence, I must reverse the latter question and expand the former.

What Does God See When He Looks at Me?

As Barth rightly inveighs, God “is not the personified but the personifying person – the person on the basis of whose prior existence alone we can speak (hypothetically) of other persons different from Him.”14 Therefore, humans “ought not to be independently what they are in dependence upon God.”15

And because of this, I cannot define myself on my own, but merely describe the characteristics and tensions of my life. My self-transcendence has value only when it transcends the self in the context of a divine discourse.

As Eberhard Jüngel claims, “it is only as the human ‘I’ is addressed in such a way that it is simultaneously claimed by something outside itself, that one is really speaking about the human ‘I’ as such.”16

I am told who I am by God, and thereby enabled to exist in proper relationship to God, to others, and to myself – the very relations that I jeopardize in self-definition.17

Barth rightly insists that true humanity – true human personality – is only found in one place: the encounter between God and humanity. Therefore, on his own, “man is not a person, but becomes one on the basis that he is loved by God and can love God in return.”18

In Jenson’s terms, humans are unique in that God relates to us as “his conversational counterpart,”19 and this divine address to us “is the Son, who is the human person Jesus of Nazareth.”20

Therefore, as Barth puts it, “the ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus.”21 To be human is to be with God in the person of Christ.22

God Sets Us Free, for Himself and for Others

If true, the grounding of humanity in divine discourse is a profound liberation, for “our acts [and our desires] cannot determine our being. Only the one who determines being and non-being determines our being.”23

And the Incarnation decisively reassures us that God recognizes us as human beings. Indeed, “the truly human person is the person who is definitively recognized by God, and in that way one who cannot be discredited by anything or anyone, not even by him- or herself.”24

Once I see that the real God has, in Christ, broken through the veneer of my projected “God” to secure my humanity, I no longer have to drive myself mad trying to secure my humanity. I am freed to worship the true God, enabled to respond to his address in prayer and worship.25

I am also liberated to relate to my neighbor, not in conflict as a model/rival, but in love as a fellow human.

This is the ineluctable result of God’s incarnational address in Jesus Christ, for “to receive myself from God and be directed toward him is therefore to receive myself from and be directed toward a fellow human. And it is to receive myself from and be directed toward a human person who precisely to be himself brings others with him.”26

Because he provides the standard by which human desires are evaluated, Christ, who exists completely for God and for others, calls and enables me to reorient my desires toward human flourishing, “the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God.”27

I can now recognize the dignity of each fellow human, not as a means to my distorted ends, but as one whom God loves, one for whom Christ died.

As Martin Luther concluded:

“as Christians we do not live in ourselves but in Christ and the neighbor. […] As Christians, we live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith we are caught up beyond ourselves into God. Likewise, through love we descend beneath ourselves through love to serve our neighbor.”28

This is self-transcendence as it was meant to be. Divine discourse encompasses God, the self, and the other, grounding both anthropology and ethics.

(For an overview of what I believe, check out my essay: “Theology in Outline.”)

CONCLUSION

What does it mean to be human? On my own, I am unable to answer the question.

In my efforts to secure my own existence, I can only describe my incoherent estate at the mercy of my divided and frustrated desires. I am a mystery to myself, I love to hate my neighbor, and I project a “God” to comfort myself in light of death.

Yet with God, I am enabled to receive my humanity in the midst of divine discourse, and to respond to his address to me in Christ through prayer, worship, and love of neighbor.


NOTES:

1 Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2: The Works of God (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 64.

2 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 64.

3 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010), 27.

4 Freud, 28.

5 Freud, 103.

6 Freud, 94-103.

7 René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 8-13.

8 Girard, 16.

9 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 13.

10 Cavanaugh, 34-5.

11 Robert W. Jenson, A Religion Against Itself (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1967), 18.

12 Eberhard Jüngel, “On Becoming Truly Human,” in Theological Essays II, ed. J.B. Webster, trans. Arnold Neufeld-Fast and J.B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 223.

13 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, 6th ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 51.

14 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-77; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), II/1: 285. Henceforth all references to the Dogmatics will be in the following form: “CD I/1, 1.”

15 Barth, Romans, 247.

16 Jüngel, 220.

17 Jüngel, 221.

18 CD II/1, 284.

19 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 95.

20 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

21 CD III/2, 132.

22 CD III/2, 135.

23 Jüngel, 236.

24 Jüngel, 239.

25 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 58-9.

26 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

27 Cavanaugh, viii.

28 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, eds. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell, 3 rd. ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012), 423.

 

Disunity in the Church? Absurd!

Presented at Southeast ETS 2015.

DISUNITY AS ECCLESIOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY:A BARTHIAN ANALOGY

Joshua P. Steele

INTRODUCTION

Just as sin is ontological impossibility, disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. The tension between the undeniable reality of sin and Karl Barth’s theological definition of sin as an impossible possibility parallels the tension between the obvious reality of a fractured church1 and the theological definition of the church as the one body of the one Christ. Two excerpts from the Barthian corpus legitimize this connection. First, in his prepared remarks to the 1937 Second World Conference on Faith and Order in Edinburgh, Karl Barth maintained that

we have no right to explain the multiplicity of the churches at all. We have to deal with it as we deal with sin, our own and others’, to recognize it as a fact, to understand it as the impossible thing which has intruded itself, as guilt which we must take upon ourselves, without the power to liberate ourselves from it. We must not allow ourselves to acquiesce in its reality; rather we must pray that it be forgiven and removed, and be ready to do whatever God’s will and command may enjoin in respect of it.2

 

Second, almost two decades later, Barth described as “impossible” that which he had earlier declared “unthinkable”3 – that certain Christian communities should “stand in relation to other groups of equally Christian communities in an attitude more or less of exclusion,” by claiming that “their confession and preaching and theology are mutually contradictory” (CD IV/1, 676).4 It is furthermore impossible “that the adherents of the one should be able to work together with those of the other in every possible secular cause, but not to pray together, not to preach and hear the Word of God together, not to keep the Lord’s Supper together” (CD IV/1, 676). Barth insists that, “in view of the being of the community as the body of Christ [, the disunity of the church] is – ontologically, we can say – quite impossible; it is possible only as sin is possible” (CD IV/1, 677; emphasis added).

In order to describe in Barthian terms what it means for church disunity to be possible only as sin is possible, the purpose of this paper is to correlate Barth’s anthropological concept of sin as ontological impossibility with its parallel ecclesiological concept: disunity as ecclesiological impossibility. I will then conclude by locating this discussion within Barth’s own ecumenical vision – with an eye toward informing and motivating further ecumenical efforts.

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

SIN AS ONTOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY

In considering human sin, we must begin with what it means to be human. Although various attempts have been made to define humanity in the spheres of natural science, idealist ethics, existentialist philosophy, and theistic anthropology, Barth claims that these are merely descriptions of the phenomena, and not the essence, of humanity (CD III/2, 71-132).

Against these provisional anthropologies, Barth insists that true humanity – true human personality – is only found in one place, the encounter between God and man, and not in the reaches or intricacies of human emotion, intellect, or will. Therefore, on his own, “man is not a person, but becomes one on the basis that he is loved by God and can love God in return” (CD II/1, 284). This is because God “is not the personified but the personifying person – the person on the basis of whose prior existence alone we can speak (hypothetically) of other persons different from Him” (CD II/1, 285). Most importantly, “the One, the person, whom we really know as a human person, is the person of Jesus Christ, and even this is in fact the person of God the Son, in which humanity, without being or having itself a person, is caught up into fellowship with the personality of God” (CD II/1, 286). Christology determines anthropology, and not the other way around (CD I/1, 131).

Christological Anthropology

Although Barth grounds the definition of humanity in Christology, he is always careful to preserve a qualitative distinction between Christ’s humanity and humanity in general:

Christology is not anthropology. We cannot expect, therefore, to find directly in others the humanity of Jesus, and therefore His fellow-humanity, His being for man, and therefore that final and supreme determination, the image of God. Jesus is man for His fellows, and therefore the image of God, in a way which others cannot even approach, just as they cannot be for God in the sense that He is. He alone is the Son of God, and therefore His humanity alone can be described as the being of an I which is wholly from and to the fellow-human Thou, and therefore a genuine I. (CD III/2, 222)

 

Instead of framing this distinction between Christ and other humans in terms of a vague moral perfection, Barth portrays Christ as distinctly more human than humans in general – existing both for God and for other humans in a way which is unparalleled. Christ’s existence for other humans is “the direct correlative of His being for God,” and this reveals a correspondence between the existence and love of God ad intra – between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the existence and love of God ad extrato humanity (CD III/2, 220).

Humanity only exists within this Christological correspondence, this analogia relationis (CD III/2, 218-20, 225-6). Specifically, Barth grounds the humanity of individual humans in the notion of a shared sphere with Christ: “the ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus” (CD III/2, 132). Therefore, “to be a man is to be with God,” for no matter what else each individual is, “he is on the basis of the fact that he is with Jesus and therefore with God” (CD III/2, 135). Because the incarnation is the fullest expression of the Creator’s summons to the creature into relationship, it is the ground of the human creature’s being and personality – distinguishing humanity from the other non-human spheres which Christ did not inhabit (CD III/2, 137).

Sin is the Impossible Possibility

However, the incarnation is also the source of sin’s absurdity. Because humanity “is not without God, but with God,” true “Godlessness, is not, therefore, a possibility, but an ontological impossibility for man” (CD III/2, 136). When it comes to sin, Barth simultaneously removes it from the definition of what it means to be human, and emphasizes its absurdity as part of human existence – for, although sin undeniably exists, “our being does not include but excludes sin. To be in sin, in godlessness, is a mode of being contrary to our humanity” (CD III/2, 136).

Nevertheless, to make some provisional sense of sin’s existence, Barth claims that the distinction between Creator and creation necessarily entails the possibility of creaturely conflict with God. As opposed to the inherent impossibility of a conflict between God and himself ad intra ,5 “it is a mark of created being as distinct from divine that in it conflict with God and therefore mortal conflict with itself is not ruled out, but is a definite possibility even if it is only the impossible possibility, the possibility of self-annulment and therefore its own destruction” (CD II/1, 503). Positively, this reinforces the creature’s identity as simply that: a creature, owing its existence to God. In fact, “creature freed from the possibility of falling away would not really be living as a creature. It could only be a second God – and as no second God exists, it could only be God Himself” (CD II/1, 503). This distinction does not necessitate actual sin, however, for “sin is when the creature avails itself of this impossible possibility in opposition to God and to the meaning of its own existence” (CD II/1, 503; emphasis added). And, given the Christological and theological basis of human existence, it makes no sense for a human to actualize this possibility, for “if he denies God, he denies himself” and “chooses his own impossibility” (CD III/2, 136). In Barth’s evaluation, this one absurd decision underlies all actions which are usually considered sins, for “every offence in which godlessness can express itself, e.g., unbelief and idolatry, doubt and indifference to God, is as such, both in its theoretical and practical forms, and offence with which man burdens, obscures, and corrupts himself” (CD III/2, 136).

For Barth, therefore, sin is not merely moral – it is both ontological and incomprehensible: the inherent contradiction of a nothingness which opposes God as the very ground of all existence and reality (CD II/1, 532; III/3, 351). The value of this definition is its absurdity. Responding to the challenge (from Berkouwer) that defining sin as “nothingness,” an “impossible possibility,” or an “ontological impossibility” seems “to suggest or imply a denial of the reality of evil,” Barth maintains that “it is of a piece with the nature of evil that if we could explain how it may have reality it would not be evil. Nor are we really thinking of evil if we think we can explain this” (CD IV/3, 177). His subsequent clarification is especially instructive for this discussion:

When I speak of nothingness, I cannot mean that evil is nothing, that it does not exist, or that it has no reality. I mean that it exists only in the negativity proper to it in its relationship to God and decisively in God’s relationship of repudiation to it. It does not exist as God does, nor as His creatures, amongst which it is not to be numbered. It has no basis for its being. It has no right to the existence which to our sorrow we cannot deny to it. Its existence, significance and reality are not distinguished by any value nor positive strength. The nature underlying its existence and activity is perversion. Its right to be and to express itself is simply that of wrong. In this sense it is nothingness. (CD IV/3, 178)

 

Similarly, the phrase “impossible possibility” is designed to reflect “the absurd possibility of the absurd,” and “ontological impossibility” to state that “the nature of evil as the negation negated by God disqualifies its being, and therefore its undeniable existence, as impossible, meaningless, illegitimate, valueless and without foundation” (CD IV/3, 178). Easily understood definitions of evil are perhaps evil themselves, obfuscating sin’s inherent incomprehensibility.

Given the definition of humanity and the absurdity of sin, there is a tension between humanity’s Christological being/essence and its sinful act/form. As Barth puts it, “perhaps the fundamental mistake in all erroneous thinking of man about himself is that he tries to equate himself with God and therefore to proceed on the assumption that he can regard himself as the presupposition of his own being” (CD III/2, 151). However, if there is one presupposition allowed in Barth’s epistemological non-foundationalism, it is the anthropological presupposition of God and his Word as the ground of human being – divine election as the frontier beyond which we cannot look for a human being “not yet summoned” (CD III/2, 151). Just as there is no God behind God, there is no humanity beyond the divine summons, beyond existence in the same sphere inhabited by Christ. It is therefore unthinkable that humanity should try to be the source of its own existence, and yet this is precisely that which occurs.

For Barth, this absurdity takes on the character of improper judgment: “all sin has its being and origin in the fact that man wants to be his own judge” (CD IV/1, 220). Although “not all men commit all sins,” everyone commits “this sin which is the essence and root of all other sins” (CD IV/1, 220). Self-justification and the damnation of the others characterize sin as “the arrogance in which man wants to be his own and his neighbour’s judge,” wanting “to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty” (CD IV/1, 231). Sinful humanity tries to ground its own existence by carving-out its own improper position as judge.

Atonement’s Intensification of Sin’s Absurdity

Yet sin becomes an even further absurdity in light of the atonement. In fact, the tension between humanity’s Christological essence and its sinful form is a driving force in the doctrine of reconciliation, for “the incompatibility of the existence of Jesus Christ with us and us with Him, the impossibility of the co-existence of His divine-human actuality and action and our sinfully human being and activity” must be addressed before we can rest assured “that Jesus Christ belongs to us and we belong to Him, that His cause is our cause and our cause is His” (CD IV/1, 348). As an answer to this predicament, “the event of redemption in Jesus Christ not only compromises this position [of improper human judgment], but destroys it” (CD IV/1, 232).

This displacement of humanity by Christ is the source of both its abasement and liberation, the former because, although self-justification always results in a verdict of my own innocence, “He who has acted there as Judge will also judge me, and He and not I will judge others” (CD IV/1, 233). However, it is also the source of freedom from the wearisome and “intolerable nuisance to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right” (CD IV/1, 233). With relevance to our subsequent ecclesiological discussion, Barth adds that it is similarly

an affliction always to have to make it clear to ourselves so that we can cling to it that others are in one way or another in the wrong, and to have to rack our brains how we can make it clear to them, and either bring them to an amendment of their ways or give them up as hopeless, withdrawing from them or fighting against them as the enemies of all that is good and true and beautiful. (CD IV/1, 233-4)

 

Christ liberates us from the tiresome task we were never meant to complete.

Furthermore, in taking our improper place as judge, he also takes away from us the just sentence we merited by taking up that position in the first place. Christ “takes from us our own evil case, taking our place and burdening himself with it,” and “it [therefore] ceases to be our sin” (CD IV/1, 236). Due to this exchange, he “is the unrighteous amongst those who can no longer be so because He was and is for them” (CD IV/1, 237), because he has delivered “sinful man and sin in His own person to the non-being which was properly theirs” (CD IV/1, 253). Christ destroys human faithlessness by taking it to its absurd conclusion: annihilation.

Because of this, humans “have no other ground to do evil now that the ground has been cut out from under our feet” (CD IV/1, 243). Considering Christ’s work both for us and in us, Barth maintains that “unfaithfulness to God is a disallowed possibility which can no longer be actualised. It is seen to be the wholly impossible possibility on which we can no longer count, which we see to be eliminated and taken from us by God’s omnipotent contradiction set up in us” (CD IV/4, 22). In light of the doctrine of reconciliation, repentance from sin is the only viable human response. Only by ignoring Christ and his accomplished atonement, only by denying the source of our own existence can we presume to have the freedom to sin, to reject God, and to be our own judges.

DISUNITY AS ECCLESIOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY

Humanity’s Christological definition results in sin as an absurdity which is intensified by the atonement. The church’s Christological definition similarly results in disunity as an absurdity which is intensified by the atonement. As we began with what it means to be human, so we begin with what it means to be the church.

Just as Barth resists an anthropology that is based upon the mere phenomena of humanity, he resists an ecclesiology that is based upon the mere phenomena of the church. Although the church is “a phenomenon of world history which can be grasped in historical and psychological and sociological terms like any other” (CD IV/1, 652), what the church actually is, “the character, the truth of its existence in time and space, is not a matter of a general but a very special visibility” (CD IV/1, 654). And just as grasping the Christological essence of humanity allows for a true appreciation of humanity’s historical form,6 understanding the Christological essence of the church allows the community to “act confidently on the level of its phenomenal being” (CD IV/1, 660). This includes ecumenical pursuits.

Christological Ecclesiology

For Barth, Christology determines both anthropology and ecclesiology, and there is therefore no “abandonment of the sphere of the [Apostles’] creed” when the transition is made from the second to the third article.7 He offers a conceptual map at this juncture:

The Christology is like a vertical line meeting a horizontal. The doctrine of the sin of man is the horizontal line as such. The doctrine of justification is the intersection of the horizontal line by the vertical. The remaining doctrine, that of the Church and of faith, is again the horizontal line, but this time seen as intersected by the vertical. The vertical line is the atoning work of God in Jesus Christ. The horizontal is the object of that work; man and humanity. (CD IV/1, 643)

 

There is therefore a Chalcedonian pattern, 8 not only to Christ’s person, but also to his work. This unavoidably includes the Holy Spirit’s work, awakening and forming the church, which is itself the subjective realization of the eternal election of Jesus Christ (CD IV/1, 667).9 In Barth’s terms: “the one reality of the atonement has both an objective and a subjective side in so far as – we cannot separate but we must not confuse the two – it is both a divine act and offer and also an active human participation in it” (CD IV/1, 643; emphasis added).

For this reason, “the history which we consider when we speak of the Christian community and Christian faith is enclosed and exemplified in the history of Jesus Christ” (CD IV/1, 644). Barth takes seriously the New Testament language of the church as Christ’s “body,” and claims that “the community is the earthly-historical form of existence of Jesus Christ himself” (CD IV/1, 661). As Christ is the head of his body, the church, he is the ground of its particular existence. Just as the incarnation grounds human existence, it determines ecclesiological existence. And because Christology and ecclesiology are inseparably intertwined, the Chalcedonian pattern which unites the church with the person of Christ also applies to the relationship between the church’s being and its act – between its invisible essence and its visible form.

Disunity is the Impossible Possibility

This union, however, parallels the aforementioned tension between humanity’s essence and its form, given its Christological definition and the absurdity of sin. As Bender notes, “Barth’s dialectical understanding of the church as both an invisible and visible reality, an event of the Holy Spirit and a historical entity, leads naturally to his dialectical understanding of the marks of the church: the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”10 Within the context of the first mark, there is a tension between the church’s being/essence as one, and its act/form as many.

Credo unam ecclesiam(I believe one church) entails that there is “only one Church. This means that it belongs to the being of the community to be a unity in the plurality of its members, i.e., of the individual believers assembled in it, and to be a simple unity, not having a second or third unity of the same kind side by side with it” (CD IV/1, 668). This follows not just a Christological pattern, but a Trinitarian one as well, for

In all the riches of His divine being the God who reconciled the world with Himself in Jesus Christ is One. Jesus Christ, elected the Head of all men and as such their Representative who includes them all in Himself in His risen and crucified body is One. The Holy Spirit in the fulness and diversity of His gifts is One. In the same way His community as the gathering of the men who know and confess Him can only be one. (CD IV/1, 668)

 

This is the source of the church’s unity, in the midst of legitimate plurality, between the visible and invisible church and between the ecclesia militans and the ecclesia triumphans (CD IV/1, 669).11 The only other legitimate church plurality is the existence of “geographically separated and therefore different congregations.” (CD IV/1, 671). If the church is to exist “in essential accordance with its commission it has to take place in many localities,” then this necessarily entails a differentiation which corresponds to “its environment and history and language and customs and ways of life and thought as conditioned by the different localities, and also to its personal composition” (CD IV/1, 671). Because it is grounded in God’s Triune unity, the church’s unity does not necessitate homogeneity, and Barth grants that each local congregation should exist within the particularities of its own context.

However, this cannot entail any sort of basic or essential difference between one local congregation and another, for “each in its own place can only be the one community beside which there are no others. Each in and for itself and with its local characteristics can only be the whole, as others are in their own locality” (CD IV/1, 672). No other legitimate plurality within the church exists, for “any other plurality means the co-existence of Churches which are genuinely divided” – churches that, at best will kindly “tolerate one another as believing differently, and at worst they will fight against one another, mutually excluding each other with some definiteness and force” (CD IV/1, 675).

And yet this is exactly the scandalous reality of the church. Although there are myriad reasons for ecclesiological divisions throughout the ages, Barth’s distillation of myriad human sins to improper judgment as “the essence and root of all other sins ” helps to make sense of the scandal of the fragmented church. Just as humans demonstrate the sinful tension between their essence and form by improperly justifying themselves and damning others, the church demonstrates the sinful tension between its unified being and its divided act when individual Christian communities justify their own existence over against the existence of other Christian communities. Because this is the case, Barth is even willing to claim that the church’s formal division has essential implications: “in its visible and also in its invisible being, in its form and also in its essence, the one community of Jesus Christ is not one” (CD IV/1, 679). While it is expected that every Christian community would claim an individual encounter with its Lord which justifies its own existence, this can quickly become a perverse insistence that the “Yes” of Christ has been exclusively spoken to them. This “claim to be identical with the one Church in contrast to the others, and in this sense to be the only Church” entails a delegitimation, whether implicit or explicit, of every other community’s claim to stand under the “Yes” of Christ (CD IV/1, 683-4). The local congregation, instead of existing in harmony with and as a manifestation of the one church, becomes a ghetto by restricting the cosmic boundaries of Christ’s church to its own four walls.

While there may be legitimate human explanations for such divisions, there are no acceptable theological ones, Barth claims, for a “plurality of Churches in this sense means a plurality of lords, a plurality of spirits, a plurality of gods” – a practical denial of the church’s theoretical confession of the singular unity of the Triune God (CD IV/1, 675). Just as it is absurd for humans to oppose God as the very ground of their existence, it is equally absurd for the church to divide in denial of the unity of God.

Atonement’s Intensification of Disunity’s Absurdity

Just as the atonement intensifies the anthropological absurdity of sin, it intensifies the ecclesiological absurdity of disunity. As Barth puts it, the previously-described exclusive claim of a Christian community to be the only church “has been dashed out of hand by the One who is the unity of the Church” (CD IV/1, 684). In making an end of the nothingness of human sin, Christ has also delivered up disunity to destruction, for “in Him it was all humanity in its corruption and lostness, its earthly-historical existence under the determination of the fall, which was judged and executed and destroyed, and in that way liberated for a new determination, for its being as a new humanity” (CD IV/1, 663). The unity which is necessarily implied in Barth’s Christological description of election is realized in the church. Members of the community “were one in God’s election (Eph 1:4), were and are one in the fulfilment of it on Golgotha, are one in the power of His resurrection, one in Jesus Christ…His body together in their unity and totality” (CD IV/1, 664). Most succinctly, “there is only one Christ, and therefore there is only one body of Christ” (CD IV/1, 666). Disunity in the church is therefore absurd, because it denies the definition of the church as Christ’s body, and the reality of reconciliation as Christ’s work.

CONCLUSION: TOWARD A BARTHIAN ECUMENISM

I have endeavored to demonstrate the significance of Karl Barth’s remark that disunity in the church “is only possible as sin is possible,” by showing the structural parallels between his anthropological claim that sin is ontological impossibility and the claim that disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. Yet the value of this correlation for ecumenism is not readily apparent until it is situated within Barth’s own ecumenical vision.

For Karl Barth, the Chalcedonian pattern of both Christology and ecclesiology applies when addressing the tension between the church’s essence and form.12 On one hand, the solution to ecclesiological disunity must not entail a docetic escapism which unifies the church at the expense of its earthly-historical form. No matter how frustrated ecumenists become, they must not abandon their ecclesiological traditions to create a formless Christianity whose only members are themselves. Because the church’s external divisions result from essential, inward fractures, “neither individuals nor the whole Church can overcome it by a flight to the invisible, but only by a healing of both its visible and its invisible hurt” (CD IV/1, 678). On the other hand, because “what is demanded is the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ, not the externally satisfying co-existence and co-operation of different religious societies,” Barth is suspicious of ebionitic approaches to church unity which approach the unification of the church as the unification of any other human communities, looking for the least common denominators upon which to build pragmatic associations (CD IV/1, 678).

Instead, Barth maintains that the pursuit of church unity must be an indirect pursuit – not an end in itself, but an unavoidable consequence of each Christian community sincerely pursuing the call of its Lord, and each individual doing so from a sober and humble loyalty to one’s particular confession (CD IV/1, 679).13 Barth asserts that “if only each church will take itself seriously, ‘itself and Christ within it,’ then even if there be no talk of union movements in it, even if there be no change at all in its order and its way of worship, the one Church would be in that single church a present reality and visible.”14 Because Christ, not Christians, is the ground of the church’s unity, an individual community can exhibit the unity of the church, even within a fractured ecclesiological landscape, “if in its ordinances it is zealous for Christ.”15

And yet this is the most difficult ecumenism of all, for it entails rigorous self-examination within each community, which must be willing to ask itself constantly whether it has legitimate reasons to exist as a particular, differentiated Christian community, or whether it should redefine (or abandon) its boundaries for the sake of church unity (CD IV/1, 680-1). I believe the correlation between sin as ontological impossibility and disunity as ecclesiological impossibility is necessary precisely at this point in the ecumenical equation, for each community’s self-examination and pursuit of Christ’s unifying summons will only be as rigorous as its understanding of the absurdity of church fragmentation. Just as sinful humanity denies the ground of its own existence, so also a divided and divisive church denies its identity as Christ’s body and the reality of the atonement. Unless the disunity of Christ’s body is seen as an unacceptable scandal, the schisms will remain, and each community’s confession, “credo unam ecclesiam,” will mean nothing more than “we believe ourselves.”


NOTES:
1 As Bender notes, “the referent for Barth’s term [whether ‘community’ or ‘church’] must be determined by context,” whether it refers to the local congregation, the institution, or the universal body of Christ. See Kimlyn Bender, Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology (Hampshire/Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2005; repr. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 13. I have followed Bender’s approach in that, throughout this study, “church” is only capitalized in quotations, when Barth himself did so.
2 Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1936; repr., 2005), 22-3. Emphasis added.
3 Note the similarities: “It is then unthinkable that to those multiplicities which are rooted in unity we should have to add that which tears it in pieces; unthinkable that great entire groups of communities should stand over against each other in such a way that their doctrines and confessions of faith are mutually contradictory…. that the adherents of the one should be at one with those of another in every conceivable point except that they are unable to pray together, to preach and hear God’s word together, and to join together in Holy Communion.” Barth, The Church and the Churches, 24.
4 The reference is to Vol. IV, pt. 1 of Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. (eds. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. G.W. Bromiley; 5 vols in 14 parts; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-77; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010). All references to the Church Dogmatics appear parenthetically in the following form: “CD I/1, 1.”
5 “It is a mark of the divine nature as distinct from that of the creature that in it a conflict with Himself is not merely ruled out, but is inherently impossible. If this were not so, if there did not exist perfect, original and ultimate peace between the Father and the Son by the Holy Spirit, God would not be God. Any God in conflict with Himself is bound to be a false God” CD II/1, 503.
6 Consider Barth’s positive, yet provisional, appraisal of the phenomena-based anthropologies: “In this way and in this sense, then, a knowledge of man which is non-theological but genuine is not only possible but basically justified and necessary even from the standpoint of theological anthropology…. It cannot, of course, lead us to the knowledge of real man. But it may proceed from or presuppose a knowledge of real man” CD III/2, 200-2.
7 “It is significant that at this point, the transition from the second to the third article, the word credo is specifically mentioned. It tells us that we can know the man who belongs to Jesus Christ only in faith.” CD IV/1, 644.
8 Bender credits George Hunsinger with identifying this theme, based upon Barth’s own description of the ecumenical councils’ doctrinal decisions as “guiding lines for an understanding of [Christ’s] existence and action, not to be used, as they have been used, as stones for the construction of an abstract doctrine of His ‘person’” (CD IV/1, 127). See Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 3.
9 As Bender helpfully notes, “there is, then, not only a direct Christological analogy between Christ and the community, but an indirect Trinitarian and pneumatological one, in that, as the Spirit binds together the Father and the Son (in the Trinity); and as the Spirit binds together the Word and flesh of Christ (in the incarnation); so also the Holy Spirit binds together Christ and the community.” Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 205. However, in touching so lightly upon the work of the Holy Spirit in this paper, I share Barth’s exclamatory sentiment: “How gladly we would hear and know and say something more, something more precise, something more palpable concerning the way in which the work of the Holy Spirit is done!” (CD IV/1, 649). Furthermore, despite the brief mention of election, it is significant that Barth grounds the unity between Christology and ecclesiology, not in the event of Pentecost, preaching, or the sacraments, but in the election of Jesus Christ from all eternity. The church “became His body, they became its members, in the fulfillment of their eternal election in His death on the cross of Golgotha, proclaimed in His resurrection from the dead” (CD IV/1, 667).
10 Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 181.
11 It is also the source of the unity between Israel and the Church, which Barth describes as the “two forms and aspects (CD II, 2, § 34, 1) of the one inseparable community in which Jesus Christ has His earthly-historical form of existence, by which He is attested to the whole world, by which the whole world is summoned to faith in Him.” CD IV/1, 669-70.
12 I am indebted to Bender’s helpful description of Barth’s critical use of a docetic/ebionitic framework. See Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 7.
13 See also Barth, The Church and the Churches, 51-2.
14 Barth, The Church and the Churches, 55.
15 Barth, The Church and the Churches, 56.
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WHITE NOISE, BHOPAL, AND THE HYPERREAL FEAR OF DEATH

It is better to go to a funeral than a feast.

For death is the destiny of every person,

and the living should take this to heart.[1]

Don DeLillo’s White Noise, “a paradigm of postmodern literature,”[2] yields the kind of cognitive dissonance that makes you wonder whether the author simply missed the mark, or if you are only confused because you suffer from the postmodern condition which DeLillo adroitly analyzes. I agree with Pico Iyer when he evaluates DeLillo as “that rarest of birds, a novelist on fire with ideas – and an outlaw epistemologist to boot – he uses his fictional excursions as occasions to think aloud in shadowed sentences, speak in modern tongues, plumb mysteries, fathom depths.”[3]

One such depth is the fear of death, echoing throughout the pages of White Noise in the perennial question: who will die first?

In this essay, I endeavor to analyze the Baudrillardian concept of hyperreality as it pertains to the human fear of death, using DeLillo’s White Noise and the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India as literary and factual signposts.

White Noise

White Noise by Don DeLillo.Jack Gladney, the novel’s protagonist, is the chairman of the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill in a nondescript anytown called Blacksmith. He and his wife, Babette, are the heads of a hodgepodge family filled with an assortment of children from various marriages. After these core details, however, it gets difficult to summarize the novel’s plot. According to Sol Yurick, this is because, “in a sense, White Noise doesn’t really have a plot: It is about the intrusion of a plot into life, a stringing-together of random events into some kind of meaningful schema.”[4] The first twenty chapters, taking up just over one hundred pages of text, bombard the reader with an assortment of episodes. From the home, to the car, to the supermarket, to the College-on-the-Hill, an assault of misinformation and profundity fades all signals to flat – from the ever-present voice of the television to random interpolations of intense emotion. We are left with white noise.

And yet, plot slowly invades. In Gladney’s own words: “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.”[5] Out of the static emerges one of the novel’s central themes: the fear of death.

According to Albert Mobilio, White Noise explores “the narcissist’s inevitable trap: a preoccupation with dying.”[6] And DeLillo explores this theme masterfully. “Writing of death,” Iyer notes, “Don DeLillo takes one’s breath away.”[7]The question “who will die first?” first appears in chapter four, as Jack wonders to himself whether this “thought itself is part of the nature of physical love, a reverse Darwinism that awards sadness and fear to the survivor.”[8] As the novel progresses, Gladney emerges as a narcissist on a quest for meaning in order to escape death, or rather his fear of it.[9] According to DeLillo, “[Gladney] feels that Hitler is not only bigger than life, as we say of many famous figures, but bigger than death. Our sense of fear – we avoid it because we feel it so deeply, so there is an intense conflict at work. I brought this conflict to the surface in the shape of Jack Gladney.”[10]In Derridean terms, Gladney’s search for center, whether in Babette’s stability, Wilder’s silence, or Hitler studies, is driven by his fear of death.

The same chapter closes with Jack’s admission that he is crafting an identity for himself in his Hitler studies endeavors. He wears dark lens glasses and renders his academic self J. A. K. Gladney, via the fabrication of an extra initial. By his own admission, Jack Gladney is “the false character that follows the name around.”[11]In the final chapter of the book’s first section, another confession emerges:

The truth is I don’t want to die first. Given a choice between loneliness and death, it would take me a fraction of a second to decide. But I don’t want to be alone either. Everything I say to Babette about holes and gaps is true. Her death would leave me scattered, talking to chairs and pillows. Don’t let us die, I want to cry out to that fifth century sky ablaze with mystery and spiral light. Let us both live forever, in sickness and in health, feebleminded, doddering, toothless, liver-spotted, dim-sighted, hallucinating. Who decides these things? What is out there? Who are you?[12]

Jack Gladney wants to be somebody, and he desperately does not want to die.

The second of three sections in White Noise is solely comprised of the twenty-first chapter. At fifty-four pages long, it is roughly the length of the first twelve chapters combined. This is because it is devoted to the “Airborne Toxic Event” (ATE), the novel’s main incident. In brief, a noxious cloud of a chemical known as Nyodene D gets released into the atmosphere, prompting an evacuation of Blacksmith. During the evacuation process, Jack is briefly exposed to the elements (and, presumably, to the Nyodene D) while refueling the family station wagon.

When Jack tries to ascertain if his exposure will cause any health risks, he has a poignant conversation with one of the evacuation officials:

“That’s quite an important armband you’ve got there. What does SIMUVAC mean? Sounds important.”

“Short for simulated evacuation. A new state program they’re still battling over funds for.”

“But this evacuation isn’t simulated. It’s real.”

“We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model.”

“A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?”[13]

The answer is yes. Unfortunately for Gladney, though, his exposure to the Nyodene D was (presumably) real enough. As his fear of death increases as a result of this news, even a specific death sentence eludes him. Just as science is quickly outpacing humanity’s control (as shown by the ATE and the toxin-eating bacteria used to eat the cloud), Jack’s fear of death outpaces death itself.

The final section of the book is devoted to the experimental drug Dylar, which was designed to treat the fear of death. Babette eventually comes clean to Jack and admits that her intense fear of death drove her to have sex with a compromised pharmaceutical agent in order to be admitted to an unofficial Dylar study. Jack is forced to come to terms with the real Babette, who is considerably less stable than he had previously believed. At first, this seems to bother him even more than the adultery. His center destabilized, his thoughts turn to Dylar, despite Babette’s insistence that the drug does not work
. The fear of death has morphed into an intense thanatophobia,[14] even more ubiquitous and intense than first thought.

As his efforts to obtain Dylar fail, however, Gladney’s anger at Babette’s adultery slowly grows. He cannot stop thinking about her and the unknown “Mr. Gray” getting intimate in a motel room. A watershed moment for Jack comes in his lengthy conversation with Murray in chapter thirty-seven. After discussing the fear of death, hypothetical ways to transcend it (putting faith in technology, studying the afterlife, surviving a horrific accident), and Jack’s actual attempts at finding center in Hitler and even Wilder (the “noble savage” who does not know he’s going to die), the myth of redemptive violence emerges – a dangerous catalyst for Jack’s festering anger and thanatophobia. Consider Murray’s words:

I believe, Jack, there are two kinds of people in the world. Killers and diers. Most of us are diers. We don’t have the disposition, the rage or whatever it takes to be a killer. We let death happen. We lie down and die. But think what it’s like to be a killer. Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation. If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up. It explains any number of massacres, wars, executions.[15]

Although Murray claims this is a purely theoretical conversation and Jack feigns incredulity, the idea is too tempting for Gladney to resist.

The second-to-last chapter of White Noise recounts Jack’s failed attempt to murder “Mr. Gray,” who turns out to be Willie Mink, a disgraced pharmaceutical agent whose addiction to Dylar has rendered him more or less insane – exposed to the white noise. Gladney tracks Mink down and shoots him twice in the gut before placing the gun in Mink’s hands in a laughable attempt to make it look like a suicide. However, the dying Mink shoots Jack in the wrist.  The myth of redemptive violence instantly fades into a parody of redemptive virtue: Gladney decides to try and save Mink’s life. He takes him to a hospital run by German nuns.

At the hospital, Jack’s conversation with one of the nuns brings the chapter to a poignant, jarring close. She explains:

Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.[16]

In the world of White Noise, even belief is simulated. Gladney returns home, his mind racing, to watch his children sleep. Similarly, the reader (whose mind is presumably racing as well), is left to watch the novel end.

The fortieth and final chapter of White Noise is dominated by a strange event in which Wilder – the “noble savage,” not yet aware of his own death – rides his tricycle across the expressway and miraculously survives. The novel then closes in characteristic rapid fire. The Gladneys watch the stunning sunsets over Blacksmith, whose beauty just might be the result of toxins in the atmosphere. Scientists still comb the area, “gathering their terrible data.”[17] Jack is taking no calls. He fears his doctor and the medical technology which are “eager to see how [his] death is progressing.”[18] The final scene is devoted to the supermarket, the transcendental temple of the postmodern age, “where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods.”[19] Appropriately, the signals fade to flat as the reader is left with the image of the supermarket tabloid racks – containing “the cults of the famous and the dead.”

Fame and death. Searching for center, gripped by thanatophobia. White noise.

The Bhopal Disaster[20]

White Noise was first published in January 1985, not long after a disastrous chemical leak in Bhopal, central India. On the evening of December 3, 1984, a storage tank of methyl isocyanate (MIC, used to produce pesticide) ruptured at the Union Carbide plant, releasing toxic fumes which northwestern winds blew into the shantytowns of Bhopal. The white fumes wreaked havoc on the populace, littering the streets with corpses or vomiting, defecating individuals about to die. “As many as 200,000 people ran through the city streets, coughing, screaming and calling out to each other.”[21] Adding insult to injury, the factory siren went off at around 2:00am, causing many to think that a fire had started. Hundreds rushed toward the plant in order to help – unknowingly entering the path of the lethal gas. Unlike White Noise, there was no SIMUVAC.

Bhopal-Union Carbide 1 crop memorial.jpgBhopal was rendered a city of corpses. The unimaginable chaos left rescue workers searching for the dead three days after the incident. Orphans wandered the streets. The death toll rose to over 2,500, with as many as 100,000 permanently-disabled survivors – suffering from “blindness, sterility, kidney and liver infections, tuberculosis and brain damage.”[22] Muslims were placed into hurriedly-dug graves. As many as seventy Hindu funeral pyres lit the night. The district had to ship in more wood just to feed the crematory fires.

Much like White Noise, rumors and fear spread quickly in the aftermath of the tragedy. Authorities had to reassure the people that an early-morning fog was not a new leak, that their milk and vegetables had not been contaminated. Furthermore, the real-life Nyodene D, MIC, was every bit as unstable and unknown – no antidote, no treatment. The physical effects of low-level exposure were predicted to fade with time. However, the same could not be said for those who survived heavier exposure. Their suffering would be indefinite.

Bhopal briefly shocked the American public (some of them, anyway) into an uncomfortable awareness of the danger of the ubiquitous chemicals that surrounded them – in factories, on wheels, and in products. Some demanded to know just how dangerous these chemicals were, in the interests of public safety. Others, like the Reagan administration, defended companies’ rights to trade secrets, in the interests of the free market.

Who will die first? Average Americans, or the denizens of the developing world? Savage nobles, or noble savages? Incidents like the fictional Airborne Toxic Event and the actual Bhopal disaster, along with our reactions to such tragedies, are telling. The former beg us to come to grips with our mortality, with the rate at which technology outpaces our efforts to control it. As Murray put it: “[technology] creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”[23] As Newsweek put it: “Experts elsewhere said that many of the victims in India would not
have been alive at all if not for chemicals that increased food supplies, reduced the incidence of malaria and improved sanitation. Judged against such benefits, the risks of chemical accidents seem more acceptable.”[24]

BLACKSMITH. BHOPAL. BENGAY. BRILLO.

Which death should we fear?

The Hyperreal Fear of Death

WikipediaBaudrillard20040612-cropped.pngAccording to Jean Baudrillard, hyperreality is “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.”[25] When our simulations of reality become indistinguishable from the reality itself, we have entered into the realm of the hyperreal. Not only is it difficult (some would say impossible) to reach beyond the simulations, but we often prefer the simulations to reality itself. Examples of this abound throughout White Noise. Consider “the most photographed barn in America,” which has been so thoroughly eclipsed by its own simulacra that it remains impossible to be seen. In Murray’s words: “they are taking pictures of taking pictures.”[26] Mentioned above, Jack’s search for center in Hitler studies and the SIMUVAC procedure are further significant examples of the hyperreal in White Noise.

Not even (the fear of) death escapes the influences of hyperreality. Although at first glance death seems a weighty enough subject to break through the simulacra and connect humanity with reality, under closer examination, death evades our grasp. Central to the complex dynamics of the hyperreal fear of death are the simulacra of death, often weightier than the thing itself. Consider how Gladney’s fear of death is more intense than death itself. It is the nebulous ambiguity of his Nyodene D death sentence which threatens to undo him, much more than the chemical itself. In a vicious cycle, the various fear-driven ways in which we react to death make our fear of death that much more complicated. That is, it can get quite confusing to discern whether or not we are afraid of actual death, or merely our various representations of it.

After all, death itself can only be experienced once.[27] Until the end, we spend a lifetime fearing that which we have not experienced. The first strategy is avoidance, distancing ourselves from the terrifying and uncomfortable. Consider the euphemism. People do not just “die,” they “pass away,” “move on,” “kick the bucket,” “hang up their tennis shoes” (Spanish), and “fall asleep” (Koine Greek). 

The second strategy is embrace, subversively trying to strip death of its fear by exploring the macabre. Consider horror movies. Sure, they rely on the fear of death, but they also attempt to treat it – giving the audience the strength to say “I’ve seen worse” when it comes to their own (probably) mediocre deaths.  These first two approaches are often combined. The hero attempts to transcend death through valor, to embrace death through battle-hardened courage. Jack Gladney attempts to avoid and embrace death through Hitler, who was “larger than death.”[28]

A third strategy is examination. This is best illustrated within White Noise by Murray, whose quote to Jack during the ATE merits quotation at length:

“This is the nature of modern death,” Murray said. “It has a life independent of us. It is growing in prestige and dimension. It has a sweep it never had before. We study it objectively. We can predict its appearance, trace its path in the body. We can take cross-section pictures of it, tape its tremors and waves. We’ve never been so close to it, so familiar with its habits and attitudes. We know it intimately. But it continues to grow, to acquire breadth and scope, new outlets, new passages and means. The more we learn, the more it grows. Is this some law of physics? Every advance in knowledge and technique is matched by a new kind of death, a new strain. Death adapts, like a viral agent.”[29]

If we embrace death to strip it of fear, we examine death and attempt to fight it in order to strip it of mystery. However, this is an unsuccessful endeavor. Death eludes our grasp and overpowers our assaults.

On a personal note, this was poignantly illustrated by my wife – a nursing student. A baby boy was transferred into the hospital, severely wounded by what appeared to be abuse –broken bones, cigarette burns and bruises, ostentatiously and haphazardly concealed with makeup. Although the doctors had managed to restart his heart and place him on life support, the first brain scan revealed no activity. During the mandatory twelve-hour wait until the second test, my wife took care of the boy. After the second scan revealed no activity, he was taken off life support and allowed to die. However, as my wife tearfully recounted the story to me that night, she wondered when the boy had actually died. Had she, in any meaningful sense, been taking care of a living patient simply because his heart was beating? Or was he dead the entire time?

When do we die? When our heart stops beating? Our lungs stop breathing? Or when our brains stop making waves? More importantly, whose death do we fear?

It is my contention that we cannot really fear our own deaths. Like Jack Gladney, we are limited to fearing and interacting with death’s simulacra. We might long to die like Leonidas in The 300, but not like a contestant in the “games” of SAW. If we have not yet experienced the death of a close family member, we might imagine the event through the lens of Marshall’s father dying in How I Met Your Mother. Even when we have had a family member, or even a patient die, we never fully experience death without dying ourselves.

We are surrounded by death, in Dylar ingredient lists and Union Carbide storage tanks, in the skies above Blacksmith and the alleys of Bhopal.

And yet we are insulated from it by euphemism and fiction, by news anchor and liquid-crystal display

– by the idiosyncrasies of our continuously temporal existence.

We are familiar with death, but we know it not.

====================

WORKS CONSULTED

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” In A Postmodern Reader, edited by Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon, 342-353. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise: Text and Criticism. Viking Critical Library. Edited by Mark Osteen. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Iyer, Pico. “A Connoisseur of Fear.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 379-384. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Johnson, Diane. “Conspirators.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 374-8. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Mobilio, Albert. “Death by Inches.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 370-3. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Newsweek, Inc. “Stories on the toxic leak at the Union Ca
rbide plant in Bhopal, India.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, 353-362. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Yurick, Sol. “Fleeing Death in a World of Hyper-Babble.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 365-9. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

===================

[1] Ecclesiastes 7:2, New English Translation (NET).

[2] Unless, of course, Dr. David Mills lied to us in the instructions for this essay.

[3] Iyer, 379.                                 

[4] Yurick, 368.

[5] DeLillo, 26.

[6] Mobilio, 371.

[7] Iyer, 379.

[8] DeLillo, 15.

[9] This condition is also known as humanity.

[10] DeLillo, 330. From an interview with Anthony DeCurtis which appeared in Rolling Stone’s November 17, 1988 issue.

[11] DeLillo, 17. See the discussion on hyperreality below.

[12] DeLillo, 103.

[13] DeLillo, 139.

[14] I make a quantitative distinction between the fear of death, experienced by all, and thanatophobia, experienced by people like Jack Gladney and Babette. That is, thanatophobia is the acute, pervasive fear of death…more like a disease than a general condition.

[15] DeLillo, 290.

[16] DeLillo, 319.

[17] DeLillo, 325.

[18] DeLillo, 325.

[19] DeLillo, 325.

[20] Unless otherwise noted, the information in this section comes from Newsweek, Inc., “Stories on the toxic leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India,” in White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, 353-362. (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).

[21] Newsweek, Inc., 354.

[22] Newsweek, Inc., 354.

[23] DeLillo, 285.

[24]Newsweek, Inc., 362.

[25] Baudrillard, 343.

[26] DeLillo, 13.

[27] If a White Paper on the doctrine of Hell comes out, please insert fundagellically orthodox views on Hell here.

[28]DeLillo, 287.

[29]Emphasis added. DeLillo, 150. 

My 2014 Regional ETS Paper: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof

If you’re interested, here’s the latest version of the Regional ETS paper I will present today at 5:00pm at Beeson Divinity School, room S009.

If you’re able to attend the presentation, that’s great! If not, feel free to give my paper a read and get back to me with any questions, comments, or suggestions. Atonement theology and the unity of the Church are two things about which I am very passionate, and intend to devote further study to these areas in the future.

Thanks

~Josh

My Regional ETS Presentation: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof

If you’re in the Birmingham area from March 21-22, 2014, and you’re interested in evangelical theology, please consider attending the Evangelical Theological Society’s Southeastern Regional Meeting at Beeson Divinity School! This year’s theme is “the theological interpretation of Scripture,” and the plenary speaker is Wheaton’s Daniel J. Treier (incidentally, Dr. Treier and I are both alumni of Cedarville…go figure). 

Furthermore, if you’re free from 5:00-5:30pm on Friday, March 21, consider swinging by room S009 to hear me present “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof: Atonement, Ecclesiology, and the Unity of God.” The atonement and the unity of the Church are topics that I’m passionate about, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to give my first ever conference paper. Here’s the abstract: 

This essay endeavors to demonstrate the theological and exegetical legitimacy of viewing the atonement as the act in which the one God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. Given Adam Johnson’s thesis regarding God’s triune being-in-act, the fullness of the divine perfections, and the unity and diversity of Christ’s saving work, I draw upon the theology of Karl Barth and pertinent biblical data to frame a theory of the atonement based on the unity of God. Although the lack of ecclesiological unity is the impetus for my study, I choose primarily to emphasize the synthesis of God’s unity and the doctrine of reconciliation. That is, I focus on the theological explanations within the atonement of why the church is to be unified. However, after framing a unity-based theory of the atonement, I conclude this study by casting a vision for the ecclesiological implications of such a theory.

If you can’t make it to my presentation, but you’re interested in the topic, check out my previous series of posts and the undergraduate thesis paper from which this conference paper is drawn. Also, consider buying the new paperback edition of Adam J. Johnson’s God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology). It’s much cheaper than the previous hardcover edition, and without his fresh insights into the doctrine of the atonement and Barthian theology, my paper would not have been possible. 

Finally, please attend the entire conference at Beeson if possible! Here’s the full schedule.

Grace and Peace

~Josh

 

The Epistle to Philemon: Analysis and Application

 

As the briefest member of the Pauline corpus, the epistle to Philemon is a letter of recommendation for the sake of reconciliation in which the apostle Paul brings the gospel truth of mutual participation in the body of Christ to bear on an estranged relationship – making a delicate request of his friend Philemon to receive back a certain Onesimus into full fellowship as a brother in Christ.[1]

Comprehension of the passage’s contemporaneous Greco-Roman epistolary landscape facilitates a knowledgeable analysis of its constituent parts.[2] Subsequently, the interpretive insights yielded by this examination facilitate an application of the letter to the contemporary Christian church.

Greco-Roman Letters

Originally referring to “an oral communication sent by messenger,” the Hellenistic ἐπιστολή eventually encompassed a wide variety of documents – from commercial to legal, political to personal.[3] As Greidanus notes, the basic form of a Greco-Roman letter was tripartite, consisting of introduction/opening, body, and conclusion.[4]

The first section named the sender and addressee, often including a brief greeting and “a wish for good health.”[5] Most difficult to analyze formally, the body of Hellenistic letters was flexible enough to encompass content suited to each writing’s particular communicative act.[6] Finally, “greetings to persons other than the addressee, a final greeting or prayer sentence, and sometimes a date” comprised a typical conclusion to Greco-Roman epistles.[7]

In contrast to literary essays and official documents of the day, written to general audiences apart from any relational context, Paul’s letters are more private and personal – exhibiting his pastoral concern for those to whom he was a representative of Christ and an elder in the faith.[8] Nevertheless, the Pauline epistles arguably exceed their contemporaneous correspondence in length, structure, and didactic intent.[9]

Although Paul understandably followed the prevailing Greco-Roman form in his own letters, he nonetheless freely adapted the epistolary conventions of the day to suit his own purposes.

For example, as O’Brien notes, although “on occasion the more intimate letters of the Hellenistic period began with a thanksgiving to the gods for personal benefits received,” Paul expanded and developed the introductory thanksgiving/blessing section in his writings more often than any writer of his day, yielding a mix of Hellenistic form with Jewish and Christian content which is present in most of his letters.[10]

Similarly, Paul often modified the Greco-Roman form by including a concluding paranetic section of exhortation after the body of his letters.[11]

Analysis of Philemon

An appreciation of Pauline epistolary form in Greco-Roman context yields important interpretive insights relating to both the parts and whole of the letter to Philemon, in which Paul displays remarkable tact as he advances his request for reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus.[12] 

Although lacking a definite section of paranesis, the epistle is composed of

  • an opening greeting (Philem 1-3),
  • thanksgiving/prayer (4-7),
  • body (8-22),
  • and closing (23-25).[13]

Opening Greeting

Of immediate note, Paul atypically refers to himself, in the midst of an otherwise standard greeting, not as an apostle (cf. Gal 1:1) or servant (cf. Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1), but as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Philem 1; NRSV) – perhaps best explained by his desire throughout “to entreat rather than command” (cf. 8-9), but also to stress Onesimus’ usefulness to him in his captivity (cf. 11-13).[14]

Sender (“Paul…and Timothy”; Philem 1a), and addressee (“Philemon…Apphia…Archippus…and the church in your house”; 1b-2) thus identified, Paul’s signature greeting of χάρις καὶ εἰρήνη (3) functions as a benedictional transition to a section of thanksgiving and prayer (4-7), which – as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus – introduces the letter’s main themes.[15]

Thanksgiving/Prayer

As Bruce notes, “the ground of the thanksgiving and the substance of the prayer are closely related to the purpose of the letter.”[16] Paul gives thanks to God because of Philemon’s love, faith, and refreshment of “the hearts of the saints” (Philem 5, 7).

The content of Paul’s subsequent prayer, then, is that “the sharing of [Philemon’s] faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (6; ESV).

However, the phrase ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου is better translated as “the mutual belonging which is proper to your faith,” referring to, as Wright puts it, “the mutuality of the Christian life which, springing from common participation in the body of Christ, extends beyond mere common concern into actual exchange” – a mutual belonging which lies at the heart of Paul’s argument and requests throughout the epistle.[17]

In addition to introducing the key themes of love/heart (cf. ἀγάπη, 4,7,9; σπλάγχνα, 7,12,20) and mutual participation (cf. κοινωνόν, 17), the thanksgiving/prayer rhetorically establishes mutual goodwill as an exordium in which Paul emphasizes characteristics of Philemon to which he can then appeal.[18]

Body

The main request of the letter’s body – of noteworthy length in its Greco-Roman context – is that Philemon should receive Onesimus just as he would receive Paul (17b).[19]

Although Paul makes use of every persuasive tactic at his disposal – including concession of apostolic authority (8; 19b), emotional appeal (9, 12), pun (11), and appeal to honor (14) – the main thrust of the argument depends on the “mutual belonging” (6) between Philemon and Onesimus now that the latter has become a Christian during Paul’s captivity (10).[20]

Regardless of the exact nature of the past estrangement (about which Paul remains virtually silent), Philemon is urged to interpret the seemingly unfortunate state of affairs as an opportunity for eternal reconciliation (15-16), transferring any debts that Onesimus had incurred to Paul’s own account instead (18). In receiving back Onesimus, Paul’s “very heart” (12b), as “a beloved brother” (16), Philemon would continue his refreshment of the saints’ hearts (7) by refreshing Paul’s heart (20).[21]

Here, then, is an analogous microcosm of the gospel itself – a fulfillment of Paul’s prayer for κοινωνία (6) and of the cruciform “ministry of reconciliation” of 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Colossians 1:24-29.[22]

As Wright notes, just as in Christ God reconciles the entire world to himself (2 Cor 5:19), “God is in Paul reconciling Philemon and Onesimus” – who both owed a debt, so to speak, to the apostle for their conversion (Philem 10, 19b).[23]

Confident of Philemon’s compliance with his reconciliatory request (21), Paul makes an additional request for lodging based on Paul’s hope for release from imprisonment and subsequent travel to Colossae to be present with his audience (22) – an epistolary structure known as the “apostolic parousia,” revealing Paul’s consideration of his writings as substitutes for his physical presence.[24]

Closing

Finally, Paul reports the greetings of his gospel co-workers to Philemon (23-24), before reverting to the plural to include the other addressees (2) in his concluding benediction.[25]

Application

If the consensus interpretation that Onesimus is Philemon’s runaway slave is correct, then Deuteronomy 23:15-16 would seem to mandate that Paul not return the fugitive to his estranged master. [26]

However, the reality of their mutual belonging in Christ compelled the apostle to facilitate the reconciliation now possible due to the Messiah’s death, burial, and resurrection (cf. 2 Cor 5:16-21).

Nevertheless, Lightfoot reveals a potential hurdle for modern readers of this ancient text when he notes that, though “the word ‘emancipation’ seems to be trembling on [Paul’s] lips…he does not once utter it.”[27]

The first step in resolving this frustration involves the clear delineation between the context of slavery in which Onesimus lived, the transatlantic slave trade of the 16th through 19th centuries, and the modern day slavery of human trafficking and forced labor – for it is far too easy to conflate the three in indignation at Paul’s failure to request Onesimus’ freedom.[28]

Then, once the anachronism of expecting Paul to be a modern abolitionist is noted, it can be clearly seen that, as Bruce observes, though the epistle to Philemon “throws little light on Paul’s attitude to the institution of slavery,” it brings “the institution into an atmosphere where it could only wilt and die.[29]

After all, the same κοινωνία that enabled Philemon and Onesimus to be reconciled could not help but destroy the dynamics of slavery within the kingdom of God and body of Christ – where “there is no longer slave or free,” but all are “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

According to the world, Onesimus belonged to Philemon as a slave. According to Christ, they belonged to one another as brothers.

Although here in Philemon, as elsewhere (cf. Col 3:22-4:1), Paul stops short of prohibiting slavery, it is clear that he understood the gospel of Jesus Christ inescapably to transform the divisive condition of humanity into a restored, eternal unity which transcended all temporal divisions (cf. 1 Cor 7:17-24; Col 3:11).

Paul’s tactful requests reveal that the bond between Philemon and Onesimus as brothers in the Lord (Philem 16) was far stronger than the social expectations of master and slave.

Transcending the issue of slavery – yet simultaneously striking at its very core – Paul’s masterfully crafted epistle to Philemon reminds Christians in every age to apply consistently the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ to their relationships, in spite of individualism’s siren song, which might tempt them to manipulate and dominate instead of to mutually belong to one another in κοινωνία.

Furthermore, readers of Paul’s letter to Philemon should follow his peace-making example by seeking to be ministers of reconciliation in their respective contexts – no matter how discordant or seemingly insignificant.

This brief letter thus coheres with the biblical theme of unity. Because God is one, his people are called to be one as well – a community of forgiven women and men, Jews and Gentiles, even slaves and masters who forgive each other’s debts and refresh each other’s hearts in the κοινωνία of their faith in Jesus their Messiah.[30]


[1] Philemon is categorized as a letter of recommendation by D. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 211-2 and W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004) 431. This paper assumes the “consensus view” of the epistle’s provenance: namely, that the apostle Paul is addressing Philemon of Colossae regarding the estranged slave and now convert, Onesimus. The creative reconstruction of J. Knox, in which the extant epistle to Philemon is the “letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16) which was written by Paul to Archippus (Philem 2), master of Onesimus, is here ignored; cf. J. Knox, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul (New York: Abingdon, 1959). For critical responses to Knox’s claims from the consensus view, see F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984) 198-202; G.B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) 217; and N.T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon, TNTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 164-6.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, “Greco-Roman” and “Hellenistic” are used synonymously.

[3] P.T. O’Brien, “Letters, Letter Forms,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 550.

[4] S. Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 315; cf. W.G. Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973) 27; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551.

[5] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[6] Doty, Letters, 34-5.

[7] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[8] O’Brien cites the intensely personal letter to the Galatians and Paul’s emphasis on apostleship at Gal 1:1, 15, 16; 5:2. O’Brien “Letters,” 551.

[9] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 426.

[10] Although notably absent from the epistle to the Galatians. P.T. O’Brien, “Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 69; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551-2; Cf. 1 Cor 1:4-9; 2 Cor 1:3-4; Rom 1:8-10; Eph 1:3-14; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:3-14; 1 Thess 1:2-3:13; 2 Thess 1:2-12; 2:13-14; Philem 4-7.

[11] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 316; cf. 1 Cor 16:13-18; Rom 15:14-32; Doty, Letters, 27; pace Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, who include thanksgiving and paranesis in “the fairly typical [Greco-Roman] structure,” claiming that NT thanksgiving sections “performed what all writers considered a common courtesy.” Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 430. While a definitive stance is impossible sans a comprehensive study of Hellenistic epistolary literature, it seems best to emphasize the distinctiveness of Pauline thanksgiving and paranesis.

[12] See A. Patzia, “Philemon,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 706. As a letter of recommendation, the passages closest extant parallel is perhaps a letter from Pliny the Younger to a certain Sabinianus, requesting that he mercifully receive a penitent freedman. Pliny, Letter, 9.21; cited by Aune, New Testament, 211 and J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973) 318-9.

[13] Pace Doty’s suggestion that Philem 21 contains the formulaic paranesis. For robust examples of Pauline paranesis, see Rom 12:1-15:13; Gal 5:13-6:10; 1 Thess 4:1-12, 5:1-22, the other examples cited by Doty, Letters, 43.

[14] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 333; cf. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 205; Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 172. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV].

[15]  “Grace and peace” is a modification of the Hellenistic greeting χαίρειν, designed both to affirm the grace and peace of God which his readers already possessed and to pray that they might enjoy/embody such blessings more fully; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551. On the epistolary function of Pauline thanksgivings, see O’Brien, “Benediction,” 70.

[16] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208.

[17] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 175-6; cf. 2 Cor 1:6-7; 4:10-15; Col 1:24; T.G. Gombis, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2010) 40; pace suggestions of κοινωνία here as evangelism (so NIV, Philem 6) or vague generosity (so Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208-9; and Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 335). The concept of Christian mutual belonging can be seen to have its roots in the “fellow Israelite” laws of the Pentateuch – the example par excellence being Leviticus 19:18’s injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

[18] Aune, New Testament, 211. The theme of mutual belonging is also expressed in the use of fellowship terminology in the epistle’s opening and conclusion: ἀδελφὸς (1), συνεργῷ (1), ἀδελφῇ (2), συστρατιώτῃ (2), συναιχμάλωτός (23), and συνεργοί (24).

[19] Doty, Letters, 35.

[20] Although Patzia rightly acknowledges the “continuing questions of interpretation” relating to the location of Paul’s imprisonment (Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea) and the timing/nature of Onesimus’ conversion, neither issue is central to the discussion at hand of mutual belonging in Christ; Patzia, Philemon, 705. Rhetorical arguments noted by Aune, New Testament, 211. As Patzia notes, per rhetorical criticism the epistle can be structured into exordium (4-7), proof (8-16), and peroration (17-22). Patzia, “Philemon,” 704.

[21] Aune, New Testament, 211-2.

[22] By “the gospel,” I am primarily referring to the atonement as the act in which God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his attributes to bear on our sinful condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. See A.J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth. (New York: T&T Clark, 2012).

[23] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 181, 186-7; cf. Paul’s use of sonship as a metaphor regarding conversion: 1 Cor 4:14-15; 2 Cor 6:13; Gal 4:19; Phil 2:22.

[24] Doty, Letters, 36; O’Brien, “Letters,” 552.

[25] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 224-5; Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison, 223. The list of names at Philem 23-24 mirrors that found at Col 4:10-17, except for the omission of Jesus Justus (Col 4:11). Of note, though impossible to explain fully, is Epaphras’ designation as Paul’s “fellow prisoner” instead of a “fellow worker” as the others. However, Bruce notes that, as “the evangelist of the Lycus valley” in which Colossae was located (cf. Col 1:7; 4:12), Epaphras “would be personally known to Philemon,” and thus merit distinct mention. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 213-4. The concluding benediction of Philem 25 closely resembles Gal 6:18 and Phil 4:23.

[26] Bruce, Caird, Lightfoot, and Wright all adopt the consensus view. Deuteronomy passage cited by Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197, fn. 19.

[27] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 323.

[28] Although an analysis of first century slavery far exceeds the scope of this essay, a potential aid in differentiating between ancient and modern slavery when it comes to Philemon is Gombis’ critique of the consensus view’s failure to acknowledge Paul’s language of ἀδελφὸν…ἐν σαρκὶ at Philem 16. It is likely that Philemon and Onesimus’ relationship was different than that between a normal master and slave. See T.G. Gombis, “Philemon and Onesimus: ‘Brothers in the Flesh’” (paper presented at the International Meeting of the SBL, St. Andrews, Scotland, 11 July, 2013).

[29] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197-8. Similarly, Wright notes that, although “inveighing against slavery per se [at the time] would have been totally ineffective,” Paul’s subtler message mimics Christ’s approach to cosmic change from the bottom up, from the inside out. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 168-9.

[30] Cf. Deut 6:4; John 17:20-23; Eph 4:1-6.