In Defense of Colonization

A week or so ago, I got a message on Twitter from my Twitter friend "Egregious Philbin," asking me for my thoughts on an pair of articles from J. R. Daniel Kirk, entitled "Colonizing Biblical Interpretation" and "Oedipus Text: Canon, Creed, and Post-Colonized Interpretation."  They are both interesting articles, and I have wanted to write about them for a while, but I wanted to finish the post on the Cult of Victimhood before turning to these articles (for reasons that will become clear in a moment).

I should say that I have enjoy listening to and reading Kirk, especially during his appearances on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast.  I have also said how I often feel like I have more in common with progressive Evangelicals than I do with conservative Catholics.  Reading these posts, however, was a reminder that this is not always the case, as it immediately brought out the "high church" part of my Christian DNA.  To me, these posts show the problems with both evangelicalism and the vaguely defined world of "post-evangelical" thinking.  It seems to me that, often, the post-evangelical folks are often far more evangelical than they think, because they are still tied to a particular way of reading the Bible and thinking about the church that is the source of the problems with evangelicalism in the first place.

Before getting to my objections, there are two things he says that to me are exactly right.  First, Kirk advocates for a diversity of ways of approaching and reading the Biblical text.  I would not say that one has a "moral" obligation to do so, as Kirk asserts, but I think the basic sentiment is correct.  Second, Kirk seems to have a general concern that we do not read the text anachronistically, projecting later concerns and concepts back into the text as if they were always in the minds of the writers.  Fair enough.

But, as to his basic thesis, I can't agree.  Kirk argues that "the Rule of Faith," which "is a general statement of what 'Christians have always believed,' and generally looks something like the Creedal tradition of the church," has "colonized" the reading of the New Testament.  This is because:

To take that list above: there is not a single New Testament writer who was a trinitarian, none of the Synoptic Gospels or Acts works with the assumption of a preexistent Christ, Paul may not have an idea of preexistence, the entire New Testament is suborindationist, in which Jesus the Messiah is subject to God who is the Father, and the notion of a church to be submitted to is spotty at best. 

My immediate problem with this claim is that it confuses an argument from silence with a negation.  I would agree that the New Testament does not speak in a clear, direct way of the Nicaean/Chalcedonian vision of the Trinity, or directly affirm that the Father and the Son are one in being.  But the New Testament equally does not negate those concepts or teachings.  The New Testament is ambiguous regarding many of the questions that have concerned later Christians.  Just because Matthew does not recite statements from the Creed doesn't necessarily mean that he is not Trinitarian.  Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't, but we can't know one way or the other, because the text doesn't answer the question.

This gets us back to a core problem evangelical theology--the Bible by itself is simply not clear enough to answer the questions that Christians have about their faith.  That's because it was not designed to bear this weight.  These are texts that are designed to address specific topics, not a comprehensive account of Christian belief.  The claim of the Creeds is not that they are some distillation of what the Bible says about Jesus, but a basic statement of what the Church says about Jesus. The notion that one can derive Trinitarianism in an uncomplicated way from the New Testament is a 16th Century retrofit, made necessary by sola scriptura.

This comes into clear focus when Kirk says things like this:

The Rule of Faith makes a claim, that claim is, “If you ask the text, this is what it will tell you.” It also makes the claim, “This is what it must tell you if you want to be reading according to the rule.”

That's a purely Protestant, sola scriptura understanding of the Creeds and the "Rule of Faith."  It's not how the drafters of the Creeds understood what they were doing, and it is not how Catholics and the Orthodox understand how the Creeds work.  If you look at the Bible as the only true source of authority, Kirk is exactly right that reading the Bible through the lens of the Creed is a weird, distorting post hoc imposition.  But that says much more about how incoherent the idea of the Creeds are in the context of sola scriptura and evangelical theology than it says anything about the Creeds themselves.  Once you situate the Creeds in the church, which is where I think they belong, the problem evaporates, because the Creeds and the Biblical text are become two complementary expressions of the overall faith.

You can, certainly, take the position that the Creeds represent the wrong understanding of the Christian faith.  And, it is unquestionably the case that there is not a monolithic consensus on what the Christian faith meant throughout the history of the church, as seen in the series of disputes going all the way back to whether Gentiles must obey Mosaic Law.  But I think you have to argue for that on its own terms, not via a reference to a proposed "right way" to read the Bible.  To say that the Bible has been "colonized" is to say that by getting rid of all of this "Rule of Faith" stuff, we will be able to reclaim some sort of pristine reading of the Bible that will solve the majority of our problems.  This is the Protestant fantasy par excellence, the belief that if we just clear away all of this church-y superstructure we can find a pure set of clean answers in the pages of the Bible.  I believe that this MacGuffin simply does not exist, and never existed, and phrasing the vision in a progressive way as opposed to the classic conservative Evangelical way doesn't make the MacGuffin any more real.

The second problem, closely related to the first, is that Kirk is not really consistent with his critique of colonization:

If we are committed Christians, then any reading of the Old Testament, especially, has to be revisited in light of the claim that Jesus has brought the story of God’s saving work in Israel to its appointed climax.

I agree with this wholeheartedly, but isn't this an example of the very "colonization" that Kirk decries?  Isn't it taking a pre-existing schema and projecting it back onto a series of texts that did not bear that original meaning?  Our Jewish brothers and sisters certainly think so.  Reading Jesus as the culmination of the story of the Old Testament is a far more radical hermaneutical prism than reading the New Testament in light of Nicaea and Chalcedon.  The irreducible Christian claim is that the story which began with the people of Israel took a 90 degree turn in the person of Jesus, resulting in a covenant relationship that is different both in content and in scope from what came before.  Come to think of it, it's not just an example of colonizing of a set of texts--it's the example of colonization.

By the way, this is an example of colonization as well:

The first clue that the rule of faith is off track is that it is a means of control. It is a deployment of power. It is a way to sit at the top and suppress what is rising up from below.
But that’s not our story.
Our story is the narrative of salvation from below. It is a narrative of shedding heavenly glory for the sake of those who could never obtain it on their own. This is the story of Matthew and Mark as much as John and Paul. It is the story of Hebrews and Peter as much as it is the story of Revelation.

This is a clear example of applying a pre-existing framework, derived from a set of modern considerations and a modern agenda, and applying it to the New Testament text.  That doesn't make it a bad reading or an unfaithful reading, but it is nevertheless a modern imposition onto an ancient text, no different structurally than the First Millennium "Rule of Faith."  My point is that I do not think you can read a text like the New Testament and not engage in some form of colonization, because we always bring ourselves to the text.  As Elizabeth Bruenig said "we are moderns and we have no choice."; we are never going to find some pristine vision in the past (whether 1st Century or 4th Century) because the past doesn't really exist.

Here, I think, the Greek Fathers are very helpful.  The Orthodox philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart makes the point that the Scripture commentaries of the Greek Fathers are not interested in the correct reading of the text as much as they are in a faithful reading of the text.  Gregory of Nyssa in his Life of Moses reads Exodus in a purely allegorical manner, to the point of arguing that the Passover never actually happened.  I don't think Gregory would assert that this is the only way to understand the Exodus story, only that it is a good and faith-promoting way of doing so.

We would do well, I think, to recover a bit of that spirit and avoid the One True Way-ism that so dominates Western Christianity.  This is what, I think, is at the heart of what Kirk is trying to do with these posts in his call for diverse readings of the text.  But, in the course of doing so, he ends up taking the position of "let a thousand flowers bloom. . . except for the traditional readings, which must be tossed aside."  To borrow an excessively over-used metaphor, he is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This leads to my third problem with Kirk's approach, which is that it requires, or at least suggests, what you might call a Cult of Victimhood ecclesiology.  His core objection to the "Rule of Faith" is nicely phrased at the end of the first post:

If salvation is from below, then I will look for the Bible to speak the voice of God as it bubbles up from below. Not from the creeds and councils of the Emperor, but from the fields and the corners, from the classrooms and the pubs, from the playgrounds and the barrios.

Story time.  My friend Father Justin was raised in a small (and, frankly, scary) Pentecostal group, before converting to Orthodoxy.  If you were to ask him when he started to doubt his Pentecostal background, he will tell you a story about a book on church history he was given in high school.  The thesis of the book is that his particular group can trace their lineage back to the Apostles, via all of the various groups that have been marginalized or rejected by the main body of the Christian church.  So, according to this book, there is a line that runs through the Gnostics, to the Marcionites, to the Donatists, the Arians, the Bogomils, the Cathars, and so on until this particular group came together in the 60s.

The problem with this thesis, which Justin immediately picked up on (as a result, it should be said, of going to our Catholic high school and reading Church history from a Catholic perspective), is twofold.  One, none of these groups have anything in common other than being outside of the main line of Christian theology.  And, perhaps more importantly, many of these groups had destructive, terrible theological visions.  The Cathars may have been persecuted unjustly, but at the end of the day they had a theology that viewed the body, and especially sexuality, as evil.  You shouldn't defend what was done to the Cathars, but neither should you defend what they stood for, because it is a destructive vision of Christianity.  Same with the Gnostics--despite how fashionable some of their ideas are now, it is basically an elitist mystery cult.

Kirk's article, and this is a trend I have seen in much progressive Christian thought, does the same thing as the book Father Justin received.  The theology that comes from the official church is per se illegitimate, and the theology that comes from other sources that are outside of the institutional structures is per se legitimate, by virtue of one being the words of the majority and the other being the words of the minority.  It's basically a Bizarro version of the magisterium, where we can look to find truth by seeing what the established church decides and doing the opposite of that.  The group that is outside (for whatever reason) is always right, and the folks that are inside are always wrong, by virtue of nothing other than being outside or inside.  Righteousness is a property of being outside of the established structures--if you are marginalized, you are always right.  This is pure Cult of Victimhood thinking.

Said another way, if one wants to argue (for example) that Arius was right and the Council of Nicaea was wrong about the divinity of Christ on the basis of Scripture, or logic, or philosophy, or experience, or whatever, then fine.  But to argue that Arius was right and the Council of Nicaea was wrong because Constantine backed the non-Arian side is not theology, but the Cult of Victimhood.  Just because you don't like Constantine doesn't mean that he must have been wrong.  I don't think it necessarily means he was right, either, but it certainly doesn't mean he was wrong.

What I care about is the content of what is "bubbling up" "from the fields and the corners, from the classrooms and the pubs, from the playgrounds and the barrios."  Insofar as those voices have not been heard, they deserve a hearing.  But there is no guarantee than any of what they have to say is going to be interesting or sensible or worthwhile.  It certainly could be all some or all of these things, but there is nothing inherent about being an outsider that should assure us that it will be so.  It could be an important, new voice, or it could be nonsense.  We need to judge it on the merits, not based on its source.

In the end, Kirk is doing the exact same thing that he accuses his opponents of doing.  Rather than break free of the "colonizing" paradigm of the "Rule of Faith," he simply offers a counter-rule, different in content but not in function.  In part, this is because we can never get to the kind of unaffected reading of the Bible that has been the Holy Grail of the Protestant world since Luther.  But it is also because the Manichean interpretation of the institutional church produces the same sort of Rule of Faith, but in the negative.  Institutional structures and rules of faith will always be with us, and are in fact necessary to having some sort of common understanding of what we are doing.  We can open them up without throwing them away.


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