Humanity, Animality, Divinity: Notes on a theological formation

Recently a friend and I discussed how our theology developed over the years. We both shared a basic commitment to what could be called a ‘social justice’ approach to theology. It was interesting to see the differences in how we came to our theology but what surprised me was the unplanned manner in which I described my own formation. I had not reflected on my early formation for some time. It seemed that I had been holding my earlier theological commitments with a sort of unquestioned self-evidence, as I suspect most of our beliefs are formed. I did not draw on memories of how I was impacted by the Bible or some influential pastor or teacher (though these were part of the story). I was also not a kid with some early or innate sense of justice sticking up for the underdog on the playground (I passed most of my childhood years with indifference and even spent some time bullying). Rather, I was drawn to a single memory of my time volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service after high school. We were stationed in Yuba City California, a couple of hours drive inland from San Francisco. Early in my time another guy my age started volunteering and we would plan various weekend trips. One weekend we decided to go to San Francisco. Through various twists and turns our naïveté of big cities (in an age before smart phones and wifi) led us into the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood (often referred to as the birthplace of hippies). This was easily the largest urban setting I had ever been in (downtown Winnipeg being the previous record holder). As we slowly navigated the busy and oftentimes bizarre streets I looked over and saw, just for a moment, the distinct image of a man squatting on the sidewalk in the midst of a bowel movement. I can’t remember thinking anything much at the time but the image imprinted itself. In Cruel Optimism cultural critic Lauren Berlant speaks about how changes happens in our life in a way that resonates with many of my experiences. She writes that change is “an impact lived on the body before anything is understood, and as such is simultaneously meaningful and ineloquent, engendering an atmosphere that [we] spend the rest of . . . [our] lives catching up to.” I suspect that for some of us much of our life can be summed up in the living out, the ‘catching up to’, a handful of experiences and images that have impacted us.

As I reflected on my commitment and theological orientation to justice it was, strangely enough, this image that made its impact, an experience I was still trying to catch up to. Somehow, deep in this urban centre that felt foreign and exotic I found entangled in the strange, something familiar. Though I can’t imagine I would have articulated it at the time this image brought me back to the farm I grew up on. We raised cattle among other animals. For much of the year these animals roamed our large property confined by a simple strand of lightly electrified wire. The fence kept these animals from the house and front yard where I could play safely but often I was in the back yard with these animals. I learned to relate to them acknowledging connections and limitations, similarities and differences. And among other differences they relieved themselves whenever and wherever they felt. They were at once exempt from culture but also confined and controlled by it.

And so there was something in this image of a man, a fellow human, performing an act that was foreign and yet familiar, something seemingly animalistic that resonated with me. I was, at least unconsciously, intrigued. What led to this man performing this act in this way? I remember latter that day needing to go the bathroom and realizing that while you may not have to pay directly to use a toilet you needed a base level appearance if not ability to be a consumer to be allowed entry into this civilized norm. That image impressed on me the reality of different zones and environments, the reality of different borders and boundaries in which humans lived which in turn affected how they behaved and were treated.

Since moving away from the farm I have spent almost all my adult life living in a downtown urban setting. I haven’t met too many other farm kids who have made this transition but the move has always felt natural to me. Earlier in life I would have articulated this as a straightforward commitment to the social gospel in which we are called to live among the poor and marginalized. I am beginning to wonder though if I simply found in urban centres the sort of boundaries, hierarchies, and differences that were familiar to me on the farm.

Most of us maintain some sort of qualitative distinction between humans and animals. Yet it does not take much scrutiny or close observation to notice that the relationship (or line) between humanity and animality is less clear than we might think (or perhaps like). It does not take long to uncover atrocious histories of racism that were explicit in establishing a hierarchy of humanity that transitioned directly into the animal. Somehow or other white male scientists considered themselves the highest species among all that roamed the earth. But you don’t need to look at these grand arcs of history to simply take note of zones, boundaries and hierarchies that lead to situations in which someone might defecate on the sidewalk. There are groups disproportionately fenced in (incarcerated) at higher rates. There are economic boundaries that keep groups from home owning in general or moving to ‘safer’ neighbourhoods. The front yard of the farm being the well-manicured and controlled suburb while the backyard left more unpredictable and untended, needed for profit but excluded from mutual recognition. We characterize these ‘backyards’ as more dangerous but are usually more accurately described as the grouping and confining of the vulnerable which inevitably becomes marked by the ‘uncivilized’ characteristics of unmanageable addictions or grinding poverty and the attending responses of despair. Such confined vulnerability draws predators in the forms of oppressive prostitution and general violence. Where I live in Winnipeg it is short walk across Portage Avenue from Wolseley to the West End. I once noticed the change in posters from lost cats or dogs in Wolseley to missing friends and family in the West End.

This single image in San Francisco rippled through me and my experience on the farm. What did it mean when the relations between human and animal, the setting of boundaries and of differing values and behaviours bleeds into human forms? Or more accurately the starkness of this image shook my senses into an emerging awareness of the hierarchies and divisions that already exist in life, among humans and between species. It was this image and the environment it engendered that more than anything provided a framework, an intelligibility for the message of justice in the Bible to be felt and heard. Increasingly, my sense is that if our notion of faith and justice come simply from ‘following the Bible’ then we will remain (as we mostly already are) too easily mired in the endless debates of interpretation, for truly there are some unjust and unhelpful expressions to follow in the Bible. The Bible alone has never been enough for discipleship (for those who might still be offended by this I might add that the Bible itself acknowledges this).

What if, rather, we spent time attending to the otherness, the differences and relations of humanity and of animality and then allowed what we saw and experienced to become entangled in the otherness, the differences and relations of God (in the songs, prayers, words, and silences of worship). This paying attention to the images and impacts that changed us can help develop another way of doing theology, doing discipleship in which accountability does not rest simply in the interpretation of a text nor some notion of natural theology (for what is natural theology but what we humans want to see in nature). This form of attention allows us to consider the fullness of life in the environments and hierarchies that are produced in the relations of humanity, animality and divinity. I am not looking to shift or erase the lines between the human, animal and divine only to ask that we might pay more attention to the type of differences, hierarchies, and often violences that can be produced in the way these lines are drawn or followed. I am not convinced that such sustained attention will produce a clear or consistent systematic theology but it may be a fruitful source of discipleship. What are some of the images and impacts in your life that you need to return to, images that return (perhaps surprisingly) when you reflect on key areas of your faith and life? For me, at any rate, this image keeps open the question of what it means to follow Jesus who we call human and divine and to whom we sing worthy is the lamb? This image keeps my eyes searching for the boundaries and the hierarchies we experience. While I have expressed some of the real challenges and restrictions placed on people in my neighbourhood part of my love for my neighbourhood is precisely the possibility of freedom from insidious demands of maintaining a proper ‘front yard’. It is from the backyard that we might witness and experience the prophecy of Malachi in finding freedom and go leaping like calves from the stall.

For further reading
Stephen D. Moore, ed. Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology, 2014.
Anthony Paul Smith, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought, 2013.

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Sick is a miracle: Reflections on sickness and healing through Porochista Khakpour’s Sick

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Good etiquette generally requires we refrain from talking too much about feeling sick. Family and friends are a little more sympathetic, a bit more patient in their ability to listen but even here there tends to be a limit for all of us in how much we can listen to the experience of another’s sickness. We can handle it in doses. We eventually become desensitized, frustrated or even angry if the person cannot seem to engage any other aspect of life. So what then when one someone’s life becomes marked not only by chronic illness but an illness that is elusive, shifting, mysterious . . . and relentless? How does one speak and relate when the time and energy often spent on work, hobbies or interests are intimately consumed by something that will not allow for any consistent or predictable times of peace or strength never mind joy? What happens when one’s life is thoroughly shaped by one’s sickness? Porochista Khakpour’s Sick is a meditation on such realities and questions. From the outset it should be clear that as an accomplished author who finished a book like this Khakpour is already a testament to the possibilities of a life in the midst of chronic sickness. But that she finished this book was no given. In Sick Khakpour chronicles her PTSD arising from her childhood in Iran during the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, drug abuse as a young adult, car accidents and ultimately the diagnosis of Lyme disease which appeared to have marked and plagued her life in unimaginable ways. The insight into the symptoms of Lyme (which are profoundly physiological and neurological) and the American medical system’s continued resistance and seeming inability to acknowledge the condition is worth the read alone. However it was the book’s larger arc reflecting on chronic illness and pain that brings home its full impact.

I had just finished Khakpour’s novel Sons and other Flammable Objects and was eager to read more from her. However, I was not initially taken in by the writing style in Sick. The writing felt a little stiff and underdeveloped in her personal reflections of journeying with mysterious health conditions. However, as the book unfolded I was moved by the demands that chronic (and especially undiagnosed!) pain places on a person. This pain and its various symptoms disrupted her career and family, established a pattern of relationships in which she found herself drawn to men who believed they could help her or at least care for her (none of whom lasted), kept her constantly on the move in search of possible treatments and continuously drained her of her financial resources. Most of us who are paying attention will know someone struggling with a chronic health condition, too often it seems it is a condition that is ruthless in its demands keeping the person guessing, off balance, not knowing when the next feeling wellbeing will come. Knowing such people myself and hearing how difficult her journey had been I found myself growing anxious reading along. I was anxious because I was not listening to a friend but rather reading a book, that like all books, comes to an end. How would this book end? Would she find clarity in her condition and a clear course of treatment? I struggled with my feelings. Clearly it would be wonderful if she found healing and yet if I was honest I didn’t want healing for her, at least not in the book. I didn’t want another narrative of hope that brings healing. I’m not convinced that is what we need.

As it turns out, and as the later sections of the book become shorter and a little more erratic, Khakpour had experienced some relief and some success in treatment and in that time pitched this book to her publisher as a “story of triumph” in which she did indeed get well. However, she acknowledges that such a book never made it past a bare bones proposal and during the writing of the book she experienced one of her deepest depressions. She was unable to write the story she initially wanted, the story publishers agreed to sell and the story we like to read. But as she put it her illness “wrote its own ending.” And finishing the book was itself the miracle.

There were few people who stayed with Khakpour throughout her illness. For those of us who cannot understand such a demanding experience it is difficult to walk with someone without becoming frustrated or feel defeated. We are frustrated because most of us need to feel the hope of real healing and overcoming illness. We want to fight for a cure. This is what sustains many. This is what initially seemed to inspire many of her boyfriends. And it was what kept drawing her back to such people. As she put it, “when the body feels out of place it will cling to anything that looks like life.” But what if we lose the fight or that our energy and hope are simply gone before the healing has come? What if our image of healing or health is simply not possible, or at least there is no real trace or evidence of it on the horizon? What if the time, energy, ability, and interests of someone you love will always be marked by something clawing back what we think could be possible, what we think that person deserves? If we invest in this future images, in particular hopes that our love and care will do more than it can, then we will likely fade from these people’s lives because we are then ultimately committed to something that does not and may not exist rather than a commitment to the person themselves. It is difficult to be nourished never mind thrive from a place that does not exist and so has nothing to offer.

In the end Khakpour’s story is not what I wanted for her personally but it is what I think we need in the midst of our realities of chronic illness. It is necessary to struggle for what may yet be possible. Hope is not a bad thing but we need to be aware of what shape it takes and what it is invested in. If we are insistent on thinking we know the end of the story or that our wellbeing is bound to that ending we will likely pass by and out of the lives of those who struggle because we will not have the resources, stamina, or understanding of a story that must be lived in the present. Theologian Catherine Keller wrote, “To love is to bear with the chaos. Not to like it or to foster it but to recognize there the unformed future.” Khakpour’s Sick is a miracle. And a miracle, I am coming to believe, is only for a moment; a moment to see and experience the formed future in the midst of chaos. This may even be one way of reading miracles in the Bible. Perhaps the miracle stories pause, linger and slow down a moment in the midst of chaos. We know Jesus did not ‘solve’ anything and yet we might experience him, experience good news moment by moment. We need more stories with such miracles for they draw our minds away from the hopes that we have and keep us attentive and present to those around us for when we are more fully invested in what is then we may yet see and experience what we didn’t think was possible.

Narrating church success

Amid the chronic expressions of church (and Christian) decline there remain a few narratives of church success in urban North American settings. There are new Canadian congregations in which an established faith from another country/context is transplanted here transferring an existing vitality. Then there remains the suburban evangelical mega church model which skews either towards a charismatic spirituality and/or conservative family values (these sometimes have ‘satellites’ in the downtown area). These narratives of success tend to remain in keeping with the larger socio-economic forces whether it is the value of social cohesion and coherence of new immigrants, the capitalist aspirations of infinite accumulation in health and wealth charismatic spirituality, or the reassuring stability of the nuclear family in evangelical mega churches.

I would like to explore a third narrative of urban church success, namely those churches emphasizing the use of ‘higher-church’ liturgy and a more straightforward commitment to theological orthodoxy. While I don’t find this article particularly well researched, a recent response to Serene Jones’ denial of a ‘literal’ resurrection attempts to demonstrate how Jones’s liberalism is now passing and another generation is rising up who embrace an orthodox theology without retreating from present issues. This article is characteristic the common claims of orthodox forms of liturgy and theology that are revitalizing the church. I would like to explore this narrative of success through my experience at and reflection on St. Margaret’s Anglican Church here in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Before continuing I should add that by ‘success’ I simply refer to congregational/parish settings that reflects vitality in terms of broad demographic engagement, ministries offered, and profile in the larger community.

Continue reading “Narrating church success”

Making a theological statement

I have never really liked theology. It would be easy and boring to associate this sentiment with some self-aggrandizing notion of how my beliefs are so original and idiosyncratic that they cannot be contained in existing theological discourses. But this was the case even when I was primed for theology, when I was seeking theology, when I just loved Jesus and wanted to be smart too.

Perhaps it was simply the case that I was exposed to bad theology early and never recovered. Going to a small evangelical bible college I still have images of the brick that is Millard Erickson’s systematic theology. From what little I remember it was basically an exhaustive attempt at creating a logical system of proof texting the Bible in relation to God. It seemed that unconsciously I sensed that theology tried to make of the Bible something other than what it already was. I always enjoyed the Bible, or at least from my early formative periods of faith. The Bible was just something that my faith led me to be immersed in. In the Bible there was more than I could possibly understand.

Evangelical apologetics were equally inscrutable. Why would ‘God’ be subsumed to reason or logic, wouldn’t that make logic or reason God? I mean, I understood what people were trying to do in apologetics but it never made sense, that is, I couldn’t actually do it. I remember taking an apologetics class and for my class presentation the only thing I could come up with as ‘proof’ was how interesting it was that over millennia a community gave what seemed like unbroken testimony to something.

My aversion to theology only continued and it was not really for lack of exposure. I toured through various ancient and modern theologians with some holding more and some less interest. My only really sustained engagement was with Rowan Williams. Williams was the first theologian for whom theology seemed non-reductive, that is, he seemed to let his theology roam as wide as his faith. This may not be advisable as an academic discipline but it was invigorating at the time. This period also aligned with my time worshipping in an Anglican church. It felt as though perhaps I found an intellectual and spiritual home. But at that time I also began reading works by Philip Goodchild and Daniel C Barber. Significant to their work was a critique of the function of transcendence within Christianity (and so also modernity) and its attendant schools of thought. The critique that I drew from them was how evoking transcendence (that is the existence of another plane of reality inaccessible by direct contact from this plane) was almost always a power play, always a matter of who was mediator, priest, of the pathway between realms. To be on the side of transcendence was to be an unassailable authority (perhaps benevolent perhaps not). Goodchild unpacked this in terms of the difference between imagination and attention. Put most simply imagination projects beliefs onto the world while attention allows for the possibility of mutual transformation engaging the world. Confessional statements of faith could not be protected when one is committed to paying attention. This was the undoing of my Anglican tour of faith. Anglican theology (and its attendant liturgy) was on trend at that time for intellectuals and artists of faith, Anglican theology (and its attendant liturgy) offering a drama of life in which creation is taken up into its vision of life. Everywhere I turned from then on all I could see were acts of imaginative projection (which ultimately is just another term for supremacy). I am not saying I have rid myself of Christian supremacism but Anglican theology was ruined for me.

In the last ten years I have come across theology that has moved and shaped me; James Cone, Delores Williams, and Marcella Althaus-Reid are a few that come to mind. What these theologians modelled for me was the type of attention that facilitated a sense of relay with life, or living. This attention privileges suffering as a reality which is excluded or rejected from dominant discourses and imaginations. Suffering is the site which can have no meaning. This resistance to discourse, which is perhaps also resistance to the world comes close to my definition of holiness drawn from the Israelite tradition of anti-idolatry, leaving nothing at the center worship. Here attention is drawn to that which is not figured, not of this world but also not transcendent; not a meaning maker from another realm.

God and God’s holiness is that which moves otherwise than the figuring of the world. This is of course not a consistent theme in the Bible. To impose consistency would already be to adopt an intelligible discourse of the world and ascribe holiness to it. The Bible does, however, offer a surprising multitude of clashing discourses, meditations on sheol and darkness, rigorous demands of holiness, and calls to value what is not. This swarm hardly makes for theology in any standard use of the term.

In the place of theology I consider my intellectual practice one of study. Study is necessary unfinished, necessarily attentive and formative. There are of course many forms and types of study but the holding of faith and intellect draws me time and again to absurdities, dreams, traumas, and the unbearable for these places necessarily clear so much of the world from it that the possibility of holiness seems somehow inevitable if one is able to learn how to sustain attention, for these things so easily cast us off or cast us down or elicit rationalizations and denials. It is from here that my understanding or worship and even church appear. It is in the gathering of those at such sites of attention that the practices of faith sustain our attention and await something that we might call resurrection.

Closed communion: On maybe not being God’s gift to the world

As the trend in Mennonite Church Canada continues to drift towards ‘open communion’ (which typically refers to an invitation to receive communion regardless of one’s ‘merits’ [baptism, membership, etc.] or even designation as a Christian) I found myself becoming more resistant than I anticipated. There are several reasons for this.

First, by way of orientation. In my experience ‘closed’ communion is typically supported by the notion that communion already reflects a faith commitment. This could be appealed to by way of the biblical precedent of only disciples being present at the founding event and then also of the very early church tradition in which communion was given special weight in relation to a believers commitment. It is assumed that people find value in communion and as a significant site of spiritual formation and worship it is not something to be undertaken lightly.

As many traditions in the last 50 years or so began to question and address the manner in which the church has functioned to exclude people and hold an unhelpful and hypocritical measuring tape up against others there have been attempts to ‘open’ communion, focusing rather on the radical hospitality of Jesus and the rejection of meritocracy, on who is ‘worthy’ to judge and to receive communion. Communion becomes a symbol that anyone should be able to recognize and receive as a sign of grace.

What I find myself wondering about is the arrogance of the church in both of these models. Closed communion can certainly be reflective of a larger ‘closed’ culture in a congregation which is unable to recognize faithfulness and goodness in people who do not fit the moral codes of a congregational theology. This is still most easily identifiable in matters of marriage of equality or sexual orientation but this extends in basic postures of piety that often reflect middle-class values on what being ‘blessed’ looks like and in turn what we expect others to look like. And so ‘closed’ communion can easily function to reinforce who is really a part of God’s chosen people. There can be an equating holiness with perfection and the church as stewards of this protection. This aligns with the deeper theology of Christian supremacy which believes the church to sufficient and superior prior to contact with what is unrecognized.

In this way it makes sense for those addressing these harmful practices to ‘open’ communion and indeed focus on radical hospitality, extending the table as it were. However, I find this posture to be more a reaction in overcoming the narrowness of its more conservative brothers and sisters. What I mean is that I am concerned this approach is more about soothing our own guilt and distancing ourselves from what we find distasteful in other church forms than actually thinking about how communion can and should function in the church. So, a few thoughts.

If communion is meant to be an intimate space in the relation to God and fellow believers church leadership should never consider it a completely open space. One can only wonder how many times victims have been forced to take communion alongside abusers. The time has fully arrived for the church to re-visit the question of church discipline particularly in relation to issues of abuse and harassment. It seems reasonable if not necessary to reflect on how to make communion a safe space (which includes an interrogation of the theology behind communion practices).

And so while communion should hopefully support and protect those within a congregation I also feel like we need to be more attentive to how communion protects those outside the congregation. Unless we wish to make communion literally a meal basically like every other meal (which could well be fine) then we need to acknowledge that communion reflects a practice that bonds one to God and to one another. There is great pious theology that can articulate the abounding love of God which is for everyone. And most of us in the church do hope that if there is something good we can offer, we want to offer it. But deploying this theology at the site of communion may not be the most helpful.

This call to open communion can again communicate that we are literally God’s gift to everyone, that we have what is good for what ails you. And so what I am wondering if we are willing to acknowledge that we may NOT actually be good for some people to be bonded to. I hear this from some black people who are uncomfortable (to put it mildly) with our white churches trying to be more ‘diverse’ (making them a project of their aspirations). I hear this from queer individuals hesitant to receive welcome when it is only practiced in a let’s-all-agree-to-disagree-and-focus-on-unity context (ultimately subsuming them under a repressive theology). And it is quite simply arrogant to assume we have what you need (I can’t help but think there is a sneaking supremacy in all this).

Rather, take your time. Get to know the church. Learn about its history, theology and practices. You know, catechism. If the church can only offer communion as a means of support to those outside its congregation it is probably doing something wrong. There are all kinds of tables, all kinds of relationships and opportunities. We don’t have our house in order and should not be quick to begin bonding someone to our family dynamics until that person has a better sense of what they are getting themselves into. Particularly as Mennonites we cannot allow our theology to become increasingly divorced from our ecclesial realities.

Review of Marcus Rempel’s *Life at the end of us vs them*

Marcus Peter Rempel, Life at the end of us vs them: Cross culture stories. Privately published with Friesen Press, 2017, 318 pages.

I confess that I picked up the book because I hated the title and because the author was local and writing from the same Mennonite tradition I am connected with. I hated the title because I hated the notion of speaking beyond or at the end of us and them. This gesture typically requires the enactment of some synthesis or overcoming of what is, some teleological or transcendent authority to accomplish such a feat. Historically or world historically this has been performed through the variations of Christian supremacy, even in its most benevolent forms (which is of course its preferred self-understanding). As I heard one professor put it the creation of a ‘we’ is always the creation of an other, an excluded. I am of the same conviction. I am sure that an individual’s personal ethics or morals can be generally kind and just while holding to some transcendent ideal of ‘we’ but if we want to work in the realm of thought we must also give account for the genealogy and political or ontological relations of these thoughts. And so suffice it to say I began with some apprehension or almost disdain at the brazen notion of entitling a work Life at the end of us vs them.

I will also confess that the book was much better than I expected. Rempel’s writing reflects sustained and humble attentiveness to his experiences as well as intellectual engagement with significant cultural and theological writers. I was impressed with Rempel’s awareness of his own limitations and the potential for abuse and misunderstanding that can come in addressing the issues he raises. The chapters in this book run the length and breadth of hot topics covered in churches, social media and politics.

It is his personal confessions that stand out as he wrestled with understanding indigenous/settler relations, liberal and religious uses of violence, sexual orientation and gender abuses, economics, terrorists, etc. Rempel hits all the talking points often with surprising freshness. If this were all, if Rempel offered these accounts as the fruit of extended introspection it would have much to commend it. However, and to return to my initial (then uninformed) criticism, Rempel does not frame these accounts in genre of introspection and personal confession but rather turns them outwards where they become projection with the influence of Rene Girard, Ivan Illich (and John Milbank to a lesser extent) and a guiding quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn which reads famously that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” These are Rempel’s tools for constructing a life beyond us and them.

While always hedging and qualifying the contingency of his position he also asserts that these teachers offer genuine answers into not only present but world historical (even pre-historic) questions of humanity, religion and meaning. The Solzhenitsyn quote as well as Girard and Milbank in particular impose a levelling effect on humanity and bring each life into a sort of equal analogy, that is, that there is a way of thinking uniformly across human experience. For Solzhenitsyn it is the entangled (and universal) soul which cannot completely eradicate evil from the human heart, for Girard it is the universal scapegoating mechanism by which human civilization and ‘peace’ is founded on the murder or sacrifice of particular individuals, and for Milbank it is the church’s ontology of peace which funds the resources for humanity’s wellbeing. I am not familiar with Illich and so will not speak of his influence.

The trouble with these authors is how smoothly the get recuperated into the imperial project of Christianity. This is explicit in John Milbank who seems to have no qualms in reclaiming Christianity as the best possible hegemony (often in trying to illuminate the deficiencies of both Islam and secular liberalism). Girard is even grander claiming a universal and scientific claim about humanity and how Christianity is the one event which holds open the possibility of reversing humanity’s use of violence to establish peace. To be sure these scholars offer tremendous critical tools and I think Rempel puts them to good use but these tools often betray him in the process.

This betrayal is particularly evident in chapter 4 ‘Sex Fiends: Jian Ghomeshi, My Rooster and Me’. In the wake of all the high profile revelations of sexual abuse and the #metoo movement Rempel opts for sympathy for the devil considering these powerful men as ‘scapegoats’ allowing us regular dudes the ability to disavow our own potentially harmful sexualities. It is not so much that Rempel is wrong about us all being complex and caught up in larger social forces it is rather precisely his inability to read those larger forces. He frames his engagement with Ghomeshi as a bold vulnerability inserting all men (and women) into the equation of sexual abuse (or at least abusive impulses). For those working at the front lines of sexual abuse (that I have encountered) it is precisely Rempel’s approach that is entirely predictable. Despite all the attention now given to sexual abuse the predictable response is still  to assert this appeal to ‘nuance’ to quickly include all of our seemingly tortured souls. This continues in Rempel’s larger critique of contemporary gender issues noting the confusion and conflicts that surface among both men and women not ever accounting for the remaining internalized patriarchy that so many feminists are clear about. And so in the end many of his chapters are inevitably about his sexuality (which fair enough is his right as an author!) and not about centering other marginal approaches to gender and sexuality. Again, if he had made other claims about the book this would have been perfectly understandable (even if problematic). But this is the temptation of the models like Girard and Milbank. They return time and again to a white male accounting for everything. And so rather than attending to entirely different models of life like the black scholarship that is emerging from a profound meditation on anti-blackness as the founding of the world (see Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson) slavery (with Girard) can be quickly is positioned as just another analogy in the logic of scapegoating. These theoretical models are dangerous because they continue to posit a sort of pure origin that can necessarily only ever be accessed by these privileged approaches and so necessarily turn to projection, determining and positioning those who encounter it.

Rempel offers an important distinction towards the end of the book,

“Illich and Girard have helped me to understand the strange world I live in by transforming my condemnation into contrite grief and my confusion into an exploratory hypothesis. But living in community – rather than intellectual conversation – are what give shape to my hopes and energy to my resistance.” (191)

I take this statement in good faith but would hope that someone like Girard would precisely become less important in his thinking and articulation over time. His model is too easily coopted into dominate discourses of theology and I don’t see Rempel’s expression as actually following from it. Not every situation is ripe for pruning along the line that divides our heart. Not every form of oppression and resistance can be collapsed neatly into a scapegoat theory packaged nicely for the Christian story of peace. I confess that Rempel’s approach remains likely more appealing that what I could offer as it is constructive. With notions of transcendent hope and pure origins there are resources for a constructive projection. My approach remains critical, the naming of idols. The confession with prophets of 1 and 2 Kings that have only the refrain the king has caused the people to sin. There is of course the daily work of care and right worship but these do not need to make the claims that Girard and Milbank ask for but can continue in the way of bearing with one another.

In the end I did not hate this book. It should be read. It is much better than many of the popular resources I see passed around in my circles. But to use Rempel’s own method I would suggest that no author can draw clearly the line in their own entangled heart and so I would suggest that Rempel and his readers attend to the remnants of an imperial imagination that persists there and have proven so hard to uproot and perhaps cannot be but does not absolve us from such field work an analogy I hope Rempel can appreciate.

A brief dismissal of Jordan Peterson

I felt a little embarrassed that we, in Canada, offered the world Malcolm Gladwell with what always struck me as a sort of naive embrace of clever optimistic liberalism. But I never gave him too much thought and in his influence seemed largely benign. Now we have offered up Jordan Peterson. What to say? I was initially surprised when I found out that the Jordan Peterson of international fame and controversy was *that* Jordan Peterson of boring reactionary soundbites on CBC.

In any event his influence appears to be growing for now and seeping into my church and denominational circles so I figured I should at least have some sense of informed response.

I don’t think it is too difficult to cut to the core of how to position yourself in relation to Peterson. He makes his orientation pretty clear when he talks about some of his primary academic research.

“I was comparing and contrasting two narratives—let’s say the narrative that drove the Communists and the narrative that drove the West. I was curious in a postmodern way, I suppose, about whether or not these were just two arbitrary narratives. Because that’s a possibility, right? We’re all socially constructed. We can organize ourselves according to whatever narrative we want. What I figured out was that the narrative of the West is not arbitrary; it’s just right. We got it right—that the individual is sovereign. That’s the right answer to the problem of tribalism. I don’t care if it’s tribalism on the left or the right.”

Despite packaging Peterson’s position is boring and predictable. Why would there be any surprise that a white western male ‘discovers’ that the myth of individualism premised the exploitation of so many groups for the founding of the modern world, a myth which has served him so well is indeed correct. Of course there is all the ‘research’ to which Peterson will point showing that his position somehow has nothing to do with realities of race, gender, etc. But to put in terms my denominational colleagues might understand, to claim that the individual is sovereign is actual equivalent to the prosperity of gospel of claiming that if you have enough faith you will be healed. It is the history of might makes right, winners write history, blah, blah, blah.

And as though his basic premise of individualism is not sufficient reason to discredit him he makes clear how he positions this individualism in relation to left/right social expressions.

“I’ve been thinking about the difference between the right and the left, because obviously the right can go too far. If you’re on the right, as soon as you start making claims of ethnic or racial superiority, you can put those people in a box and you can say no. On the left, we know the left can go too far, but we don’t know when. I think it’s because it’s a multivariate problem. You can’t point to one thing, one policy, one ideological axiom on the left that has the same degree of self-evident toxicity that racial superiority does, though I think equity comes close, the demand for equality of outcome”—i.e., the anti-capitalist idea that we should all more or less end up with the same number of marbles, no matter how we play the game.” [emphasis mine]

So working at some level material/economic distributive equality is close to the toxicity of racial superiority. This quickly circles back to his premise. To claim that the West was right in claiming the sovereignty of the individual is in fact akin to claims of racial (and gender) superiority as we know which individuals in history were sovereign. All of this spins out in his claims that he is trying to get young men to take responsibility . . . take the responsibility of their sovereignty I suppose (which includes a seemingly oh-so benevolent patriarchy).

In any event whatever ‘good’ can be found in his work can be found in better forms elsewhere. Don’t give Peterson the time and let him fizzle out or self-conbust.