Saturday, January 28, 2012

Thoughts on Jeff Keuss' "Freedom of the Self"

Jeff Keuss teaches at SPU and at the Fuller NW campus, and I was his TA for his Christian Ethics class a couple years ago. His book, "Freedom of the Self," came out in 2010 and I wrote some thoughts down after reading it. I haven't done anything with them yet, so I decided to post them here. Read on if interested in what is essentially a theological book review...

Keuss' book is a response to his impression that, like the account of the procrustean cropping of a Rembrandt painting with which he begins, theology is often guilty of "favoring doctrinal method and form that delimits and at times violates the very thing that theological method is hoping to adequately 'frame' and celebrate." (p. 2) Perceived as a corrective to one area of improper delimiting, Keuss' book "is concerned with the loss of the self amidst what is happening in the emergent and missional discussions." (p. 2) He believes this loss of the 'kenotic self' potentially undermines these otherwise valuable trajectories within contemporary Christianity. He wants to provide "a deep model for authentic personhood" that reflects "the full canvas of our humanity." (Ibid)

Keuss begins by outlining the contours of the emergent movement, and the methodologies employed by those who claim the label 'missional.' Following David Bosch, Keuss argues that the missio Dei of scripture "alerts us to the dynamic calling and form of missions," (p. 6) but this is not, in fact, what is happening in the missional movement. Instead, three camps—those favoring evangelism, those favoring church, and those favoring the 'kingdom of God'—are vying for primacy. (p. 6-8) Each of these approaches has its own strengths and weaknesses, and one of Keuss' primary concerns is whether, and to what extent, missional Christians should move beyond these three camps, and what models might replace them.

Keuss recognizes that the vision of mission "is a truly grand vision for the body of Christ," and he believes that part of the problem facing mission today is that "our understanding of self is distanced from our understanding of the mission of God and our place as individual subjects." (p. 11) He regards his book as an attempt "to return the notion of missio Dei to the core defining principle of what it means to be a self in and for the world." (Ibid) To accomplish this, he looks not only to the past—Augustine, Aristotle, Aquinas—but also to current trends in Continental philosophy which, he believes, will be methodologically of value in developing a proper Christian understanding of the self.

His three major goals are, then: 1) to find "a language for the kenotic self that is in concert with the core of the Emergent movement as well as being deeply missional, and that includes an acknowledgement of lament, terror, and violence," 2) "An honest and humble awareness of otherness in the face of multicultural and multifaith dialogue, while still proclaiming the call toward 'one Lord, one faith, one baptism'," and 3) "A shift toward honest dialogue with non-Western writers," in an effort to find affinity with non-Western conceptions of the Christian faith. (p. 12) This last goal also may have the benefit of providing clarity to the kenotic conception of the self.

Keuss begins his examination of the self through a 'deep reading' of Philippians 2. The key passage, verses 6-11, is a hymn of praise in which Christ's humble self-emptying is recognized and glorified. Keuss' exegesis follows scholars such as Gordon Fee, who seek to remind us that "kenosis is not merely an attribute for Christ alone to exemplify but is the very form of being for the continually sanctified disciple of Jesus." (p. 18) In other words, to take seriously Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human means to wrestle with how we, as humans, are to respond to Jesus' humanity. This is best approached, Keuss suggests, by celebrating the Incarnation and seeking to live into/out of our humanity in the same way that Christ lived into/out of his. As Keuss says, "this is a radical call to 'get personal,' to literally move into the lives of others and find habitation there, and conversely to create an expansive space of hospitality within our hearts and homes." (p. 19)

But kenosis is not simply a feature of Christ's humanity; it is an "essential quality of godliness." (p. 20) This relies upon Fee's interpretation of the Greek work morphe. Following Michael Gorman, Keuss suggests that "kenosis is theosis... through the incarnation, we are offered a fully embodied manifestation of the God who is holy, yet not wholly… immune from the categories that define humanity." (p. 21) The reality of God becoming a human being contains within it the transformative possibility of human beings becoming more like God.

Keuss now moves into a closer examination of various conceptions of the self, beginning with Aristotle and Augustine. From Aristotle he takes the idea of the 'chief good' or eudemonia, the flourishing life of joy that is, for Aristotle, the highest human aim. In Aristotelian ethics, the virtues lead to the chief good, or they are not virtues. For Augustine, the good is not something to be found outside the self but rather within, as we reflect upon the life we have been given by God. The subjective turn in Augustine's thought leads to the belief "that humanity, as fashioned in the imago Dei... sees this... primarily in searching ever deeper into the form of the self, which is the form of God." (p. 34) In other words, the chief good is not only something we seek because it is the highest form of life, it is our very selfhood which, at the core of who we are, was created by God to reflect God. Our desire to live Godly lives is the reflection of the image of God in us, and is the path to God, the highest good.

It is a bit unclear what the connection is between kenosis and ethics at this point, and Keuss seems to recognize the vagary. He replies to those who may be weary of the discussion so far that it is precisely one of the features of the kenotic self that it ponders what factors lead, and have led, to its development and, further, what values we hold dear. This involves an in depth examination of one's deepest regions of the soul, in order to discover what may be hiding therein, and stubbornly refusing to humble itself before God.

In the next chapter, Keuss examines the ways in which imagination and art can open up kenotic features of the self. Here he relies upon Goethe, the German poet and writer, and particularly his concept of 'morphology,' which Keuss takes to be a key feature of the kenotic self. Beginning by drawing upon the tension between the self as representation (Vorstellung), or 'I,' and the self as concept (Begrifft), or 'me,' Keuss interprets this as "the dwelling place of the kenotic self." (p. 40) The self we present to others and the self to whom others respond are never in complete harmony.

Goethe's morphology recognizes this dissonance and responds by positing that the self can be seen as a process similar to the processes of nature. This involves admitting that the process can only be seen by looking at the whole of nature, or the self, rather than the empirical elements or types that make up the whole. It is less important to show what the pieces of the puzzle are and how they fit together than it is to show the whole image that is created by fitting the pieces into place. Thus Keuss states that reading Goethe's Lehrjahre involves recognizing that "the distinction between representation (text) and formation (subject) disappears, leaving a new hybrid," one which is both ideal and 'real.' (p. 42) Keuss argues that this shift from an empirical view to a morphological one is "profoundly theological." (p. 43)

However, when Keuss says on the next page that, for Goethe, "Destiny and chance both play a role, neither to the exclusion of the other," (p. 44) it is difficult to see how this is consistent with theology, since the formation and 'becoming' which are present in theology are generally understood to be neither strictly the product of destiny nor chance; they are a product of God's sovereignty, to be sure, but in concert with human freedom, which is neither destiny or chance. If we are willing to admit that the self is in process, then perhaps the kenotic self begins its formation as one responds to that recognition. This would be a step forward that seems underneath the surface in Keuss' account, but may nevertheless be present. The missional movement argues that we begin our theology from a particular context, and theology must recognize the context in order to speak the Gospel in a meaningful fashion. Recognizing the morphological nature of the self may be the starting point for a kenotic theology of mission.

The return of what Keuss calls a 'neo-pagan' belief system, throughout Western culture, means that the kenotic self must develop in concert with the varied beliefs that stem from this culture. Thus, "[a]s the kenotic self develops and grows in a neo-pagan world, we are alerted to some provocative challenges in relation to how we articulate what we see as truth." (p. 59) These include the recognitions that "truth is articulated through a primarily aesthetic, embodied medium," "individuals are indeed allowing for mystery and paradox in their lives amidst relationships," and "what it means to be human in the twenty-first century is ultimately some extension of the organic body as post-human." (p. 59-61) While these statements no doubt contain insight, one wonders whether this is meant to reflect the need for a kenotic self, or whether the kenotic self, already having realized its purpose, would simply apply itself to these axioms when the context was suitable. In other words, how much weight do we really need to put on cultural movements to be effective kenotic selves?

Keuss suggests that the Emerging church is a response to the 21st century "neo-pagan and cyberpunk culture" present in the Western world. (p. 64) Drawing from Tillich's 'theology of culture,' where religion is conceived as "the directedness toward the unconditional depth of meaning in each of these cultural functions," the Emergent church model embraces mystical, apophatic, and nonfoundational elements. (Ibid) These, in turn, lead to a view of mission that attempts to be more organic and fluid, rather than the systematized approach of more traditional churches and mission models. This dialectical movement takes place, says Keuss, in "the triadic interplay of content, form, and meaning..." (p. 65)

Keuss further examines the Tillichian and Schleiermachian influences on the Emergent church, and asks: "is the Emergent church movement only flirting with liberty and a release from formalism toward authentic engagement with meaning through content, only to fall back into modern concepts and practices that reinforce that which they seem intent on moving beyond?" (p. 73) His conclusion is that the jury is still out. It is unclear whether Keuss means for us to infer that the kenotic is actually somehow formed by these cultural trends or not. Thus, the question posed above remains. Said another way, does the Emergent response to the so-called neo-pagan culture lead to a formation of a genuinely kenotic self, or is it a mistake for the church (or the self) to take on a form which is not meant to be its own? The concern would be that if the culture is what shapes the kenotic self, then it may not be a truly kenotic self, inasmuch as Christ and culture are often discordant.

In the next two chapters (which make up nearly one-third of the book), contemporary Continental philosophy is connected with the theological vision of the kenotic self. Keuss mentions Ricoeur, Derrida, and Heidegger, but focuses primarily on Levinas and Marion. He explains that Derrida's goal in Writing and Difference was to "situate ultimate subjectivity—that which we call our identity or sense of purpose... at a place beyond language." (p. 79) Following upon Derrida's description of the 'center' of such an identity as indefinable, Keuss suggests that the center of the kenotic self does not have to be located in one specific place. In fact, the center may not be 'central' to the structure. It may be distributed. This, he asserts, is keeping with the Christian understanding of Christ as the center of the self. "Christ," he says, "is always moving toward, through, and even beyond us." (p. 82)

Thus, the kenotic self is located in the space where meaning and definition are incommensurable. It remains in a truly theological space. The kenotic self recognizes the otherness of each person, and the subsequent ethical dimension of all relationships. Whenever we take our particular idea of a person to be 'the real person,' we close off the actual connection to the real person. By virtue of determining them, we have closed off our ethical responsibility to them. Levinas terms this rejection as 'totalization'—a kind of 'violence' which denies the freedom of the other. Keuss argues that this totalization "occurs whenever we already presuppose to know what the other is about before the other has even spoken. Totalization is a denial of the others' difference, the denial of the otherness of the other." (p. 88)

But how can we know whether we understand the other, even when they do speak? By what means are we to ascertain that our interpretation of the other is in fact allowing their otherness to be made known, and not, at least in part, our own determination of what constitutes their otherness? In other words, can we really ever not be somewhat guided by our own assessment of the other? Are we ever completely free from the totalizing tendency? There is also a presupposition in Levinas that a prior connection to the other has already been cut off. This connection is established by the sensible world, i.e. our world of interaction prior to thought, language, and systematization. It is the 'moment' of immediacy which causes such a connection. But how does Levinas explain this connection? Is it Heideggerian, thus making people into mere 'tools?' It would be unethical to view a person as an object that gains its importance by its relation to me, and Levinas would admit as much. However, does he end up falling into his own trap?

Sensibility cannot be purely a relation to otherness, because then it will be unable to relate that back to the self. Keuss explains, "What it means to be a self means that I come radically after the other, who calls me to responsibility before I am there." (p. 99) This indicates an active response; however, I am not sure why this active 'response-ability' should be for the sake of the other, per se. It seems there is a theological a priori assertion which is written into this view of otherness, and I wonder if it is appropriate for Levinas to make such claims under the guise of philosophy? Also, to prevent the self from having the freedom to choose would be unethical on the part of the other. Coercing one to be ethical is itself unethical. If the responsible self is 'compelled,' then in what sense is it accountable?

Levinas becomes (and Keuss seems to agree) very 'Reformed' at this point: the Good, which is beyond being, "chooses us" before we choose it. (p. 100) This is close to a predestining God, and the idea that God's decision to choose us is what makes us responsible, and is the ground of ethics. But, how is one responsible to a God to which they cannot help but be obligated? Herein lies the mystery of determinism vs. free will, and this is not, in my view, made any clearer by Levinas. Keuss suggests that "the kenotic self... exists only on account of its having received an investment of goodness which demands the dispossession of its own being in the proximity of the other." (p. 101)

Keuss seems to be taking both kenotic and 'open' theology and imbibing them in a rather general sense, while leaving important theological considerations relatively untouched. He makes the following statement, for example: "For the purposes and fullness of love, God allowed some of his actions to be conjoined with our prayers and responses to God's call. God elicits our collaboration in his plans and has decided not to control everything but leave room for us to operate." (Ibid) Ok, but does this necessitate 'openness' in a theological sense? Keuss speaks of "creative rather than restrictive sovereignty" in this regard. (Ibid) I wish he would spell out more explicitly what he means by this idea.

Keuss says that God's love is "precarious, involves vulnerability, and gives us the dignity to return that love freely and openly." (p. 128) And again, "God wants to be loved by us and willingly makes himself vulnerable. Though we are completely dependent on him, God is also willing to be dependent on us." (Ibid) But Keuss does little to tease out the ramifications of such statements. Rather, we are presented with a paradoxical situation: "God is involved with time and history, indicating that there is in God both that which is wholly free from variation (so that God's character is eternally unchangeable) but also that which corresponds to the changing circumstances of a temporal creation." (p. 129)

Keuss also says that God doesn't know "all that will eventually be known." (Ibid) He does say that such a view does not imply God is unprepared for or unable to control all possible futures. God remains omniscient and omnipotent. But Keuss doesn't really take the space to spell out what this might mean, and thus leaves us with what appear to be problematic discontinuities. However, he does seem to avoid process theology's 'love without power' and also deterministic views that imply power without love (since in determinism love ceases to have any genuine content, as it cannot be freely actualized). Still, it would be nice to have a bit more robust theological engagement with some of these points, given that their viability seems to directly impact the efficacy of Keuss' model of the kenotic self.

Keuss ends the book by suggesting the practical implications of the call to be a kenotic self. These include ways of approaching economics, which Keuss calls an "Emergently Responsive Economics" that includes the following principles: 1) God owns all things, 2) God provides all things, 3) We release all things, and 4) We are called to desacralise all things. (p. 135-36) Reminding us of Ron Sider's important book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Keuss takes the challenge of a kenotic self to be one of "freeing ourselves from the debt that binds, and walking into the world free to give and free to receive." (p. 139)

Perhaps one of Keuss' more intriguing claims comes in chapter nine, where he suggests that the gospel of Jesus Christ ought to be viewed as "the heart of secularization." (p. 140) Here Keuss seeks to reverse the traditional interpretation of secular terms, and place the message of the Word made flesh at the center, so that Christ 'living in me' becomes "a deeply 'secular' claim." (p. 140) He appeals to secularity as a shape of life within the urbanization of culture, such that it becomes a paradigm in which the message of Christ is not seen as antithetical, but as potentially healing for those who find themselves in cities where individualism, upward mobility, fragmentation, loneliness, and fear are the ruling principalities. Reminding us that Harvey Cox described secularization as the "turning of [one’s] attention away from other worlds and towards this one," (Cox, The Secular City, p. 18) Keuss suggests that this, in fact, ought to be "the logical consequence of biblical faith" since, after all, our Savior was among us and lived a human life.

Keuss suggests that the marks of such a Christianity would be one that is not averse to anonymity, since it is not our job to make people present themselves to us, but rather "to wait, be hospitable, and create a space of care and compassion where people can announce themselves." (p. 142) Also, mobility is not viewed as evil: "Mobility is... not new nor is it to be seen purely as a [sic] impediment toward deep and meaningful identity formation." (p. 143) Mobility is a theme throughout Scripture and cannot be simply written off as contrary to God's purposes. In fact, the kenotic self is humble enough to admit that God may choose to mobilize Christianity and keep it moving so that it does not become stagnant. Indeed, there could be much made of the idea that the explosion of faith in the 'global south' is a sign of the need for Christianity to move on from its stagnating forms in the Anglo-European world.

Keuss argues that the church must respond to the pragmatic and profane tendencies of the secular by existing as a redemptive community ("God's Avant-Garde") that finds expression in "authentic and radical embodied expressions of kerygma, diakonia, and koinonia." (p. 146) This finds its expression in a form of "cultural exorcism," where we are liberating humanity from its demonic enslavement. This happens only as the church embraces its own secularity: "The mandate for the kenotic self is to enter the secular as Christ did so fully through his incarnated life and ministry... This is the task before the kenotic self: to remain in a missionally open engagement in and for the world that allows its heart to break with that which breaks the heart of God amidst this secular age." (p. 149)

"In summary," says Keuss, "my vision for the kenotic self is the humble framing of identity as enfolded in the Great Commandment of Jesus whereby one is truly responsible for the other and fully given to the world. In this regard, Christian community shaped around the kenotic call of Christ is this compelling space for authentic dialogue in response to alternative forms of community offered today in society." (p. 156) I agree with this statement, but I wonder how this is supposed to be articulated in a manner that also presents revelatory truth. In other words, what if, in this world of multiple communities, there are other forms that seem to offer just as much responsible dialogue, compassion, and/or hospitality as the Christian community? How are we to maintain any distinction? If we are not somehow different, can we really continue to make a claim about our place within the culture? And if we are different, and it is not because we are more loving, or more generous, then what is our marker? If we can't identify it, what does that mean for Christianity? Is it, as some argue, no longer necessary? These are obviously difficult questions.

In some ways, the book exhibits the marks of a postmodern self; each of the chapters seems to be fragmented somewhat from the other chapters. There is a wide range of ideas and images presented, and references range from Endo's Japanese fiction to the music of U2 to Star Wars. Though there are common themes which draw the chapters of the book together, it nevertheless seems to struggle at times to be a cohesive whole. One wonders if this could be, in itself, a metaphor for the struggle of the kenotic self, as it seeks to finds its cohesion as a self in the midst of the fragmentation which characterizes the contemporary, urban individual.

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