Sargent - Black Brook

Here is the table of contents for the series:

1. Introduction

2. Serene Jones and Feminist Theory

3. Karl Barth on Man and Woman

4. Implications for the Homosexuality Debate

5. Implications for Women’s Ordained Ministry (Charlotte von Kirschbaum)


Over the course of this week, I have planned and already written a series of posts on gender. A particular interest of mine has been the way that feminist and queer theology has aligned itself with a liberationist account of human freedom. This is an apparently self-evident account of human freedom and flourishing, over and against “force” (power) that underwrites societal norms.

My interest in this subject goes back several years, while an undergraduate in Religious Studies, working my way energetically through Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, a text that I’ve returned to at various points in my intellectual pursuits. Now, Foucault is somewhat passé, as academics have found his reduction-to-power approach a bit limiting, to say the least, for their pursuit of life-giving prescriptive norms that are valid for all. Yet, transcending this problem is tricky, given that the construction of identities (including, perhaps especially, gender) is still demonstrated in feminist/queer literature using the language developed by Foucault and associated post-structuralists and, more broadly, erstwhile Nietzschean existentialists. Here is a taste of Foucault, defining society’s “individualization” and creation of “souls” through techniques of power:

A ‘soul’ inhabits him and brings him to existence, which is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body. (p. 30)

We will see echoes of this in Serene Jones, a leading Reformed feminist theologian, who I will use as a foil to argue against. Jones represents a noble, but to my mind flawed, attempt to develop a normative and prescriptive account of gender that appropriates the best insights of feminist critical theory, while warding off the contradiction inherent in critical theory’s attempt to account for moral action. This contradiction is ably summarized by Todd May:

Since what are being criticized are social practices, and since the ground of criticism is also a social practice (the social practice of moral discourse), and since all social practices are products (at least in part) of power relations, what is it about the social practice of moral discourse that renders it capable of passing judgment on other practices? (The Moral Theory of Poststructuralism, pp. 7-8)

Jones is not satisfied with a moral discourse that reduces to nothing other than the process of constructing norms, but I am not persuaded that she is actually able to do otherwise, given her commitment to feminist theory’s baseline conclusions. This leaves us with a hollow account of woman (and man) and an anthropology that is woefully underdetermined by either dogmatics or exegesis. It is clear that, for Jones, feminist theory provides a source and authority for theology that stands beside and in-conjunction with theology proper — a liberationist ethic that is then discovered in Scripture and developed in her Reformed account of sanctification. In other words, she happily discovers common themes in both fields.

Unfortunately, this effectively demotes the authority of Scripture and, as to my thesis, undermines the covenant form of creation that grounds the Pauline construction of gender identity and gender relations. Given that statement, perceptive readers will not be surprised that the hero of my story is Karl Barth and his account of man and woman in Church Dogmatics III.4. This is an unjustly maligned and, often enough, misunderstood piece of dogmatic reflection on the (yes!) liberation of man and woman in the covenant of grace. This takes the form of a definite ordering of man toward woman (super-ordination) and woman toward man (sub-ordination), an ordering which is not reversible or interchangeable. Yet, the material content of these categories (of super- and sub-ordination) are not to be filled by natural typologies, which marks Barth’s account with a tremendous amount of sensitivity toward feminist concerns. The covenant form of creation is the sole authority for a truly Protestant and evangelical doctrine of man and woman (Eph 5, 1 Cor 11, etc.). The exegetical basis for this doctrine makes impossible the sort of “radical equality” commonly offered by those who discover a more normative apocalypticism in Paul which, in this view, he could unfortunately only partially implement (and, in our day, we can wholly implement).

I will have the table of contents for the series at the top of each page, for easy navigation.


Image: “Black Brook” by John Singer Sargent

I wrote these reflections for members of my church. Now I offer them here:

Greetings Westminster friends,

I’m sending this as a feeble attempt to offer some reflections on the Newtown tragedy. I trust many of your hearts have been overwhelmed with emotion — sadness, anger, tears. I was reminded of the French mystic and philosopher, Simone Weil. Here is an account from a classmate of hers at the Sorbonne (early 1930’s):

She intrigued me because of her great reputation for intelligence. [But more so…] A great famine had broken out in China, and I was told that when she heard the news she had wept: these tears compelled my respect much more than her gifts as a philosopher. I envied her having a heart that could beat right across the world.

A heart that could beat right across the world! That was Weil’s greatest gift, and it deepened as she discovered the love of Christ for the first time, while observing the destitute peasants in a small Portuguese village. She saw that Christianity was not for the strong but for the weak, and she among them. This discovery of dispossession invariably compels us to our knees, where the strange love of God takes the form of a Cross. With that in mind, I offer these thoughts that I wrote this morning:

Prayers are ascending from Newtown. And with the prayers are the questions, the uncertainties, the perplexities, the anxieties — in short, the vulnerabilities of naked and weak beloved of the Father who have been cast to and fro by the brute force of an evil that speaks the tempting word of despair. The killer drank this despair — it became a part of his descent into the nothingness, the void, into which he attempted to bring twenty defenseless children with him. This is the despair in which we have forsaken the love of the Father — a forsakenness that the Son bore on the Cross as a final demonstration that we, in turn, have not been forsaken by the Father. I say that the killer “attempted” to bring his victims into this nothingness — a nothingness where the love of God is not heard and not received with joy and thanksgiving. It is only an attempt, for we have heard, we have received — thus, our prayers are the definitive protest against this attempt and all such attempts. We know the void has been overcome, filled with love. Death is not subject to the whims of absurdity, of this wickedness; it is defeated. The Cross falsifies the tempting word of despair — as death is illumined by the Resurrection light. We approach this mystery with no confidence in ourselves. This Word of love is not something we can speak to ourselves — the death of these children is too real, too painful for such human conjuring. It is spoken to us, from the Cross, entering our drama, our crosses, as a certain hope of new creation. In this way, beyond our grasping, the love of God is found even here, in Newtown, perhaps more than anywhere else right now. These children belonged to God. He won them on the Cross. They belong to him now, and He is now delighting in them, in their play, in their joy.


Hey folks. The blog has been dormant for the semester, as usually happens. I plan to do some substantive posts in the near future. It’s been a highly stimulating (spiritually, intellectually, emotionally) last few months, with some rather productive writing/research on my part! Thanks for everyone who still subscribes or occasionally checks-in on the blog. Per usual, I’ve devoured quite a number of books, so here are some of my recent selections:

Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology.

Very good, well-written…but I’m not convinced at her attempt to mediate between essentialism and constructivism (a worthy attempt but ultimately results in a rather hollow presentation of woman). Of course, that criticism is not surprising coming from a guy who basically agrees with both Barth (CD III.4) and Balthasar (Theo-Drama III) on gender…and with Paul (Eph 5).

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mary for Today.

Some lovely reflections. Probably incomprehensible to most of my fellow Protestants.

Graham Greene, The End of the Affair.

Easily among my favorite novels now. Similar to the profound treatments of grace in Diary of a Country Priest (Bernanos) and Flannery O’Connor.

Stanley Hauerwas, God, Medicine, and Suffering.

Gripping, thought-provoking, but I’m very much not convinced by his resolute non-theodicy.

G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification.

Excellent treatment of a tricky subject (well, tricky for Protestants!). Berkouwer is such a well-balanced theologian that it’s hard to ever find anything to dispute.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.

I’m slowly working through this with Professor Currie and a group of Presbyterian pastors in Charlotte. Barth’s skills are even more refined here than in I.1 or I.2…it really blows my mind what he is capable of.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics.

Yes, it is probably better than Discipleship, but they are two very different projects. Discipleship is clearly better suited for the average reader — hence, its greater popularity.

God and friends, Holy Bible.

More than anything, I’ve been doing a concentrated study of the way faith and works are understood outside of the over-analyzed Romans. I am focusing on Hebrews, Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 John. I think the finest summary presentation is in 1 John 4:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God;but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us.