Editor’s IntroductionBy Paul Louis Metzger
John Hick once wrote, “It is sometimes said, polemically, that nonincarnational theology leads to detachment from the problems of society, leaving the field open to politically reactionary or even fascist forces. I am inclined, however, to think that the opposite is true and that in general, though with many individual exceptions, a conservative theology tends to be associated with conservative political attitudes and a liberal theology with liberal political attitudes.” While there is certainly evidence to support Hick’s charge in the recent culture wars, hopefully, this journal with its aim to provide a biblically informed, Christ-centered, Trinitarian engagement of culture provides one such noticeable “exception.”
The opening essay reviews the late Colin Gunton’s Trinitarian engagement of culture in The One, the Three and the Many. As Bruce McCormack notes, Gunton maintains, along with Erik Peterson and Jürgen Moltmann, that the idea of “an absolute and unitary God provided support for absolutist forms of political order.” For Gunton, the concept of the Trinity provides relational space to mediate between the One, championed in classical times by Parmenides, and the Many, championed historically by Heraclitus. Gunton argues that the doctrine of the Trinity undercuts the absolutism of Parmenides. While McCormack is not convinced that a Parmenidean account of the One leads to absolutist views, nonetheless, he shares Gunton’s concern for overcoming political absolutism. McCormack emphasizes the need to move past the Parmenidean view of God as beyond knowing and toward the knowledge of God rooted in Jesus Christ. McCormack writes, “Where . . . God is truly known in Jesus Christ, there a leveling process occurs. Christ alone is King; every human stands—equally!—under His Lordship. None may ‘lord it over’ his fellows. But only where God is truly known!”
This same attention to revelation finds resonances in the two essays that follow. Paul Molnar argues that mythological or projectionist theologies, as espoused by Gordon Kaufman and Sallie McFague, far from liberating humanity, actually lead humanity into deeper alienation from God, self-justification, and self-imposed oppression with no hope for salvation. While acknowledging the important efforts such theologians have made in drawing “attention to important excesses and errors on the part of Christian theologians of the past and present,” they replace one set of errors with another. Although Kaufman seeks to overturn authoritarian conceptions of God, Molnar argues that Kaufman himself displays an authoritarian air in excluding the traditional view of God’s independence and of Jesus’ uniqueness as God’s only Son. Moreover, while Kaufman rightly critiques instances of Christian imperialism, he fails to see that these instances arise not from affirming Jesus’ uniqueness but rather “result whenever Christians do not take seriously enough Jesus’ uniqueness as the one Lord of life.” If imperialism is to cease, we need not a Parmenidean agnosticism leading to projectionism, but a Christ-like activism rooted in the God made known in Jesus Christ.
This brings us to R. Kendall Soulen’s article, which traces a connection between religious pluralism’s espousal of God’s essential namelessness and the recurring problem of imperial power. Whether Egyptian, Roman, or modern versions, empires favor a nameless deity that makes it easy to project their own political exploits onto the divine void. Soulen quotes from Edward Gibbon who claimed that in the time of the Caesars, all the religions were “considered by the people equally true, by the philosophers equally false, and by the magistrates equally useful.” A nameless deity is malleable and cannot hold in check the expansion of the market or its dehumanization of life. Soulen contends that “the pluralist theology of religion unwittingly provides a spiritual rationale for the unlimited dominance of the marketplace, for the commodification of all things, including religion, and indeed, human life itself.” In the end, those who suffer under the bondage of modern Pharaohs will join the Jewish slaves of old in demanding of those who claim to be God’s spokespersons, “Who is it that sent you? What is his name?” While religious pluralists rightly maintain that, “God cannot be circumscribed” or domesticated by human conceptualities, contrary to pluralists, Soulen argues, “God can be identified.” God will not allow himself to be imprisoned in divine ineffability, for the true mystery is that God makes himself known. While “a nameless God is infinitely malleable,” a named God or person “is the very opposite of a commodity.” In the end, we bow not before Pharaoh or Caesar, but before the one named Jesus, who exegetes the divine name for us in human history, and who as the revelation of that name “puts down the mighty from their throne and exalts those of low degree.” The God who appeared to Moses as the LORD calls to account all other lords who would commodify God or his creatures, and tells them, “Let my people go.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., was by many accounts a modern-day Moses, who called on God in Jesus Christ in his protest against the American empire with its historical commodification and dehumanization of his people. LeRoy Haynes, Jr. points out that King, in the tradition of Black slave preaching, drew deeply from the well of biblical prophecy and Jesus’ love ethic to find the resources for confronting the fallen principalities and powers to let his people go. While admitting that King’s model of non-violent confrontation has limitations, Haynes claims that it remains effective, more effective than his critics realize. For one, King develops a love ethic based on the example of Christ that aims at social transformation rather than limiting Christ’s ethic of love to the individual, religious sphere. Moreover, King’s model of social transformation aims at reconciliation between the oppressed and their oppressors. No wonder, King’s model has proven effective not only in the United States but also in South Africa and in other places around the world.
The same Spirit of prophetic utterance which fell upon the orator and activist, King, has fallen on the musician, Bruce Cockburn, if one takes to heart Brian Walsh’s essay. Whereas King attacked segregation laws in the United States, Cockburn attacks the market laws of global capitalism, which of course includes the United States. Walsh calls to mind Elie Wiesel’s claim that the twentieth century is the age of the refugee and wanderer. In the face of exile, we are tempted to forget our predicament or the way back home. Cockburn’s music does not allow us to forget. Cockburn challenges the commodification of life, and provides an alternative vision of hope to the secularized salvation that technology promises. Cockburn maintains that this secular state of affairs devalues life and suggests a crisis of the spirit. Drawing on biblical imagery, he develops a sacramental view of the creation endowed with the Spirit. Walsh argues that, “Cockburn seems to be saying that there is no light, no dawn of new creation, without the illuminating and enlivening power of the Spirit.” The Spirit who anointed Jesus and birthed the church bears witness to the world through them, and prophetic voices like Cockburn, and inspires hope for the dawn of a renewed creation when we will find our way home.
The Asian hymnographer, I-to Loh, calls on the churches in Asia to remember their own identity as they are faced with the threat of Westernization in music. Loh suggests that Asian churches are in danger of becoming what some call “banana churches”—their Asian identity is only banana-skin deep. The rest is Western, through and through, including their worship music. Loh’s “life’s work has been this struggle between contextualization and Westernization or globalization.” While Loh does not think globalization is “inherently bad,” it is “problematic when it promotes the wholesale supplanting of local cultures by Western ideas.” Loh urges greater attentiveness to the image of God manifest in every human culture and to the incarnation where God in Christ through the Spirit takes on human, enculturated form. In this paper, reminiscent of his highly acclaimed Sound the Bamboo, Loh presents samples of Asian church music and Asian themes in his call to Asian churches to remember their identity and return home.
Even as Loh warns us to move beyond “banana churches” in Asia, Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs challenges our perceptions of organic food in North America. Her essay, “The New Word for Pure is Organic,” launches Cultural Reflections, a new section of the journal, which will provide short reflections on aspects of contemporary culture. Muhs wonders if organic food stores provide a new avenue for the expression of cultural elitism and spiritual purity. As she asks, “Are we presently running away from third world sautés because they are not organic, or because they have become too popular with the general populous of American society? Are we now leaning towards vegetarianism like the third world does out of necessity or out of spirituality?” Cultural barriers, such as those between classes and races, are not fixed and constant, but are variables, as the authors of Divided by Faith point out in their discussion of racialization. Perhaps food functions as one such barrier between classes today.
The difficulty of breaking down barriers can be illustrated not only in terms of organic food but also in terms of the ongoing tension between the left and right in American society today, as noted at the outset of this editorial. One theologian who attempted to be a moderating and mediating voice between respective camps was Prof. Stanley J. Grenz, one of the journal’s contributing editors, who died unexpectedly on March 12, 2005 from a brain hemorrhage. Theologian Roger Olson, on the Westminster John Knox website’s memorial to Grenz, says, “Stan Grenz was the consummate mediating theologian, always building bridges between church and culture and between confessional communities within the church of Jesus Christ. He was passionate about relationships and believed that they are embedded in the very nature of reality. His theology was aimed at drawing people within the circle of faith into dialogue with each other; his was an irenic and collaborative project rather than one that drew boundaries and passed judgments . . . .” Christianity Today noted in its own remembrance that Grenz was no ivory tower theologian; he was always seeking to bridge the gap between the academy and church and broader culture. I continue to be grateful to Prof. Grenz for his help in promoting the journal in its early stages, and for contributing an essay to its inaugural issue in December 2004. As with many others, we at Cultural Encounters are in his debt. It is our hope that as Cultural Encounters proceeds, it will display Grenz-like charity toward contrary views, noting their strengths even while remaining critical, and will speak forth Christ into the contemporary cultural context. To the extent that the journal does so, it will serve not only as an ongoing “exception” to Hick’s rule concerning incarnational theology noted at the outset of this editorial but also as a fitting tribute to Grenz’s own theological legacy. In view of this aim, we dedicate this issue to Prof. Grenz’s memory and legacy.
—Paul Louis Metzger, Editor