Envision 08: Summary and Review (Part 2 of 3)

The first post in my review of the Envision 08 conference focused on the first day. In this second part of the series, I will summarize and review the second day, minus the evening “night of preaching,” which I was unable to attend.

3. Plenary I: Randall Balmer on the History of Evangelicals

Randall Balmer is a professor of American religious history at Columbia University. His 2006 book, Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament, is essentially a book-length op-ed about how, as he say, “the Religious Right distorts the faith and threatens America.” I hope to write a full review of the book soon on this blog, but that will have to wait. The point is that Balmer’s talk at Envision was just a summary of some of the more important points in this book. Having read the book already, there was nothing new at all in what he presented. That said, the things he said were good and fit the conference themes.

The major point of his talk comes from the first chapter of his book, regarding what he calls the “abortion myth.” The Religious Right, he argues, did not form in response to Roe v. Wade, as we often hear today. Rather, it formed in response to the government’s rejection of tax exemption for Bob Jones University because of its racist policies (no admittance of blacks for many years, and then no admittance of unmarried blacks in order to prevent interracial marriage). Balmer shows that the Southern Baptist Convention even came out in support of Roe v. Wade three times in the mid-1970s before the fundamentalist takeover of the denomination corresponding with the ascendancy of the RR. In addition to this history of the RR, Balmer also mentioned Roger Williams and the need for true Baptists who maintain the separation of church and state (chapter 2), stated his support for public education as the basis for democracy (chapter 3), highlighted the 2005 debate between Lee Silver and William Dembski over Intelligent Design (chapter 4), discussed the importance of environmental care (chapter 5), and even concluded his talk by reading from the end of his book’s conclusion (pp. 190-91). Overall, Balmer’s talk was well received, but it was disappointing for those of us who wanted more than just a preview of his book. It sounded more like the kind of talk an author might give on a book tour, which perhaps it was, just recycled for Envision 08.

The panel of scholars responding to Balmer included Vincent Bacote, Mimi Haddad, Andrea Smith, and a man who replaced Rita Brock whose name I did not catch. Bacote presented a few questions, but the central one (which he repeated later) was whether the problem with the RR was less a matter of content and more a matter of form. In other words, their concerns might be valid but they go about it the wrong way. Bacote’s question demonstrates his own more conservative politics. Balmer’s critique of the RR includes both form and content, and Bacote did not seem to grasp that point. A more subtle difference between Bacote and Balmer was noticeable in that Balmer was advocating a classically Baptist ecclesiology, whereas Bacote (as a neo-Calvinist) was advocating a Kuyperian-Reformed ecclesiology. Here, again, we have the split between an Anabaptist and a Constantianian understanding of the church. While this difference was not explicit in the conversation, it was nevertheless part of the underlying subtext.

The only other speaker who really made an impact was Andrea Smith, who gave the most stimulating five minutes of the entire conference. She began by describing herself as a Southern Baptist inerrantist with a politics on the “extreme left”! In a frenzy of words, she then went on to dismantle the idea of nonprofit organizations—what she calls the “non-profit industrial complex”—as vehicles for social revolution (their dependency upon government grants makes them incapable of converting and mobilizing people to a cause which has as its goal the subversion of the government) as well as to deconstruct the entire abortion debate. It was a stirring speech, one that I hope will be available in recorded form or at least transcribed.

4. Plenary II: Lisa Sharon Harper on the Theology of Shalom

If there was one major disappointment in the Envision 08 conference, it was the second plenary session with Lisa Sharon Harper. Her presentation of a “theology of shalom” was the event which had the most promise with the least outcome. She began on the wrong foot by doing one of those youth group-like exercises where everyone closes their eyes and imagines something totally far-fetched. She had us imagine a perfect society of love, where there is no Holocaust, no genocide, no Apartheid, no violence, no injustice, etc. When this tiresome exercise was finished, instead of directing us to the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation (as I fully expected she would), she said that this is the vision provided by the garden of Eden in Genesis 1-2. The rest of the talk went downhill from there. Harper set about exegeting the description of Eden in Genesis in terms of a “theology of relationality” (my term, not hers; she never really thought theologically at all during her talk). The ish exists in relationship with the isha, the world, and God. Shalom is defined as the wholeness of love-relations that God intends for humanity, but which was ruined with the Fall. She interpreted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as a reminder to humans that they are to seek God. Temptation is necessary to help spur us on to a deeper relationship with God. The rest of the Story, she said, is about God’s plan of bringing us back to the shalom found in the Garden. That’s basically the summary of her lecture.

What a missed opportunity! I have a long-standing interest in a “theology of shalom,” as demonstrated in my series on the “Spirit of the Lord.” So I came to this presentation with expectations of hearing theology. What we got instead was a presentation of poor exegesis, watered-down theological platitudes, and a gospel of self-realization rather than costly discipleship. Her interpretation of Genesis clearly was not done with any familiarity with the exegetical literature. At several points it seemed that she thinks there was an actual, literal garden; she even said that the garden was bigger than any nation in the middle east today. But my frustration primarily concerns her theology. I will focus my comments on two primary issues: (1) her attempt to return to the Garden rather than move forward to the New Jerusalem; and (2) her reduction of the Fall to temptation.

Throughout her talk, Harper spoke about returning to the Garden—about God bringing us back to the shalom of Eden. Late in her presentation, however, while reading from Revelation, she suddenly caught herself and noted in passing that we are going to a city, not a garden. Rather than dwell on this profound point, she skipped right over it and returned to talking about Eden. The term “New Jerusalem” never once came up. For a brief moment, it was clear that the text completely undermined her “theology of shalom.” And that is because her so-called “theology” was built on a fundamental misunderstanding of the text, one rooted in a conservative evangelical fascination with and interpretation of a literal Eden rather than a christological-eschatological conception of the Holy City. Harper never seemed to realize the contradiction in her identification of the garden of Eden with the kingdom of God. More importantly, her talk revealed that she really had not done her homework: if she had studied Isaiah, Micah, and Revelation, she would have discovered the basis for a theology of shalom rooted in the eschatological hope for the New Jerusalem.

In Micah 4:1-4 (cf. Isaiah 2:2-4), we read that the “mountain of the Lord,” or Zion, will one day “be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it.” At Zion, the New Jerusalem, “nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” The nations “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” These texts are basic to the eschatological doctrine of shalom, but they do not return us to a mythological garden; instead, they point us forward to the future of God, to the time when all the nations of the world are reconciled in the God’s reign of eternal peace (shalom). The concept of the city is a fundamentally political one. Remarkably, in a discussion of “shalom,” Harper never once talked about social and political peace. She only spoke in saccharine terms about human relationships, using the sentimental example of married love, rather than the more daring and biblical notions of ethnic, social, political, and global reconciliation (e.g., Eph. 2). Whereas the garden looks back in nostalgia to a time of arcadian simplicity, the city looks forward to a time of cosmic redemption. Eden is a utopia before conflict, whereas the New Jerusalem is a utopia beyond conflict. Eden is peaceful because there is no sin; the New Jerusalem is peaceful because sin has been destroyed in the cross of Christ and all people now live in the abundant peace of the resurrection. Eden is life before death; the New Jerusalem is life that has conquered death. A theology of shalom grounded in the New Jerusalem is one that recognizes that God in Christ has reconciled the world and is therefore “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). The eschaton is not a return to some arcadian past; it is a movement toward an open and redemptive future in the light of Christ’s resurrection. A true theology of shalom has to begin from the end, not from the beginning.

Harper’s second major misstep concerns the nature of the rupture of shalom. Since she understands shalom as relationality, sin or the Fall is merely the break in relationship. And since the Fall is reduced to the temptation to turn away from one’s relationship with God, the implication is that salvation is reduced to one’s turning toward God. Her soteriology, if I can even call it that, is almost wholly pelagian and bourgeois. We recover shalom by turning to God and others in love. As long as we do not succumb to temptation but allow such temptation to spur us on to loving relationships, we will recover the shalom of Eden. This is not only a non-christological soteriology—and, not surprisingly, Jesus hardly ever came up in her talk—but it is also a Western, American, bourgeois theology of individual self-realization. According to Harper, I find true wholeness by choosing to love God rather than falling into temptation. The wholeness intended by God in creating the world depends upon whether I choose God or myself. This is an Arminian concept of abstract human freedom which undermines the biblical identification of freedom with obedience. Freedom is not found in choosing God over against choosing something else; freedom is found in following the way of Jesus and becoming a “slave of righteousness,” as Paul says. Freedom is not rooted in my choice of God, but in God’s choice of me in Jesus Christ. Wholeness is not located in what I accomplish, but in what God accomplished for us in the death and resurrection of the Son. Shalom is not found in self-realization, but in God’s actualization of new humanity.

Not only is Harper’s soteriology seriously confused, but her bourgeois theology of self-realization reduces the Fall to temptation when Scripture views it as suffering and death. Genesis 3 is an etiological myth that seeks to explain why humans suffer and die. Harper instead read the story through the lens of human choice and self-actualization. At one point, she mentioned that death and pain are described in Genesis 3 as consequences of the Fall, but she never followed up on that insight. What we see throughout Scripture is not mere temptation, however, but radical oppression and suffering. The slavery in Egypt is the fullest manifestation of the Fall: the Israelites work the ground to no effect, and the women give birth to children slaughtered by Pharaoh. God’s liberation of Israel is the proleptic anticipation of God’s deliverance of the cosmos from the Fall.

By reducing the Fall to temptation, Harper’s “theology of shalom” provides no answer to those seeking liberation in the midst of social injustice, political oppression, and radical evil. But the Bible does have an answer: namely, Jesus Christ, who suffered and died in our place so that we might have confidence that all things are made new in him. Shalom is indeed about relationship: not our relationship with God, but rather God’s relationship with us in Jesus Christ. Wholeness is not found in platitudinous ideas of loving people in the abstract. Wholeness is found in the concrete act of God’s love for us in Jesus, which then overflows into concrete acts of love for others. Harper’s whole message was abstract and individualistic, despite her intention to speak concretely and communally. It was, in the end, closer to the Religion of Oprah than the radical discipleship centered on Jesus.

The panelists—Jeremy Del Rio, Anne Dondapati Allen, Shane Claiborne, Bart Campolo, and Miroslav Volf—did their best to make up for the poor plenary. While each had good things to say, the real fireworks came when Bart Campolo came out and basically denounced Harper’s talk as an example of evangelical platitudes which have no grounding in the real world of ministry to the poor. He said that talk of shalom is all well and good, but it’s all too abstract—and, though I am a theologian who can tend to be abstract, I agree. Campolo went on to say that warm, fuzzy talk about reaching wholeness in our lives has little if anything to do with the hard work of actually loving the poor child suffering from HIV or the woman beaten and raped and desperate for food. These people are not helped by such banal theological assertions.

Campolo’s response was not a plea to give up theology in order to do the “real” work of ministry—far from it! He went on to criticize the way Harper had identified shalom with something the church accomplishes on this earth as it builds the kingdom. By collapsing shalom into some immanent, social reality, Harper failed to address the issue of eschatology, which is my point as well. Campolo said that if wholeness depends upon our ability to build the kingdom here on earth, then those suffering and dying now are left without hope. They can, at best, hope that many generations later we might have built a more just society, but they remain in despair of a hell that threatens to engulf them after death. Campolo then came right out and said that unless our “theology of shalom” can offer hope to people now that they, too, will be included within the kingdom of God—eschatologically understood, of course—our words are empty and vain. In other words, it’s not that we need to drop theology and just feed the poor. Rather, Campolo is saying, unless our theology can grapple with the fact that millions of suffering people are going to die without hearing any good news and tasting any glimpse of the kingdom, we are holding on to a theology that is too distant from the reality of oppression and injustice. His thesis, repeated a few times, is that some theology just will not survive the experience of working with the poor. Being with the poor, he said, warps and twists one’s theology. Just as Shane Claiborne said that his experiences with homosexuals forced him to abandon the traditional views on the matter, so too Campolo said that his experiences with the poor forced him to abandon the notion that you have to believe in the gospel before you die in order to be saved.

I am wholeheartedly in agreement. Harper’s bourgeois theology of wholeness cannot address the person experiencing injustice. She offers no hope to those who are essentially damned from birth, who are born into oppression and will die under oppression—never once having heard a word of comfort and hope. Is a theology of shalom supposed to ignore such people as lost? Are we forced to abandon some in the hopes of creating a new world for others? Or might we instead think christologically and eschatologically about the reign of God, such that it is not dependent upon our ability to realize the kingdom here and now but instead rests in the future of God and thus embraces all people from all times? The visions of Isaiah, Micah, and Revelation are fundamentally universal in nature. I suggest that if Harper had turned to those texts first in articulating a theology of shalom, she might have been able to reach the kind of universal eschatological hope that I and Campolo seek. Campolo tried to assure people by saying that he was not laying a “universalist trip” upon them, but he shouldn’t have backed down from the truth.

Volf responded to Campolo by appealing to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? He said that the church was right not to endorse universalism (I agree), but that we absolutely must have hope that all may be saved. Anything less than that is just unacceptable. Campolo wholeheartedly agreed with Volf. I do, too, but I do not think Balthasar should have the last word on the matter. As I argue here, I think our “Yes” to Balthasar’s question can be stronger than Balthasar’s own “Yes.”


Anonymous said…

Glad you were there, but you're wrong to describe my theology as Constantinian, which I would have made clear had there been more time. I would have also challenged Randy on regarding public schools, because the narrative he gives doesn't work when you put the history of African Americans into the mix. If you want to talk with me about my views sometime, I definitely welcome it, but it is important to note that there are options between being and Anabaptist and a Constantinian triumphalist.
Hi Dr. Bacote,

Thanks for visiting my blog! Actually, it's David, not Doug. My cousin is named Doug, and was my year at Wheaton, so I fully understand the confusion.

Let me apologize for giving the impression that you might be a "Constantinian triumphalist." I definitely do not think that is the case. I was merely trying to tease out the tension in the conference between these two extremes. Obviously, people fall in different places along this spectrum. I think I'm still right in identifying you in the Kuyperian camp, but I didn't mean to suggest that this equals a Constantinian collapse of church and state, just as having a more Baptist ecclesiology does not equal Anabaptist radicalism. I was merely suggesting that your questions to Balmer brought to light the same tension that I saw in the (implicit) disagreement between Cizik and Claiborne (see part 1 of my review).

I hope that clears things up. My apologies for oversimplifying matters. I'm just trying to get at the underlying subtext behind the very stimulating conversations. I really appreciated your questions, all of which I would want to ask myself. And it's too bad they weren't answered, though that's not entirely Balmer's fault.
Anonymous said…
Sorry about the confusion, though I totally intended to call you David, not Doug (who I also remember, but I didn't know you were cousins - slightly different seminary experiences wouldn't you say. :) ).

Thanks for the clarifications. I'm definitely a Kuyperian, thus my self identifying statement about neocalvinism (I still think fewer than 10 people there knew what if refers to). In terms of the length of our panel, you may have noticed that ours was probably the one panel that had the least amount of time for interaction after the responses because it started late. I really wanted to tease out some of the tensions you mentioned, though I think it was indeed hard to figure out what Cizik really hoped to do. I think he was trying to put 60 minutes into 20 and we all saw the result. I wonder if the overall impression would have been different if there had been some conversation between the three of them. Oh well. By the way, congrats on getting into the PTS doctoral program. I hope you also got the full funding part as well (it's a big help if you can get it, and you are at an institution which has more $$ than any other seminary- though others tell me it's not always evident).