Narratives of a Vulnerable God : Christ, Theology, and Scripture.
By William C. Placher.
Westminster/John Knox. 188 pages, $14.99.
Over the last several decades the academic study of religion has been marked by a debate that, put much too simply, pits a “Yale school” against a “Chicago school.” The Yale school has been associated especially with the names of George Lindbeck and the late Hans Frei, the Chicago school especially with David Tracy. But, of course, each school of thought is also represented by its graduate students, who have themselves become teachers in the academy.
Probably any simple description of the terms of this debate will seem to those involved to lack sufficient nuance, but we may hazard a few general observations. It is, in some respects, an argument between those who want to continue the Enlightenment project of making religion intelligible to its cultured despisers (Chicago), and those who hold that believers should concentrate on developing the particularities of their faith, whether that outlook makes sense to outsiders or not (Yale). It is a debate between those who want to translate Christian categories into terms thought to make sense to our contemporaries-and those who believe that this is the quickest way to irrelevance, and that Christians should not accommodate their views to the seeming “norms” of contemporary experience. So, for example, for one view the Christian ideal of love is probably best translated into language about respect for the dignity of every human being. For the other view the meaning of Christian love must grow out of the biblical story of God’s love and commitment to Israel and to the world-especially, the story of that love enacted in Jesus.
The alternatives as I have depicted them here are perhaps too stark, and the issues are surely complicated, but one thing is clear. One might anticipate that adherents of the Yale school, having made their claim about the proper method for studying religion, would get on with the job of theological reflection itself. To continue forever reworking the debate about method is almost to undercut the force of their claims. Yet, paradoxically, relatively little first-order theological work has actually emerged from the Yale school thus far. Narratives of a Vulnerable God is, however, a happy exception to that claim. In seven engagingly written and clearly argued chapters William Placher has taken up important theological themes-discussing the nature of God, the story of Jesus in the Gospels, and the character of Christian community.
The book is, however, more captive to current assumptions than its author sometimes supposes, and I note a few examples here at the outset as a way of freeing myself to turn to other, more useful, topics. Placher is sensitive to a fault; nevertheless, an author should not be allowed more than one reference to the fact that he is a privileged white male. (And in connection with that reference, having been duly abject, he ought probably to note his good fortune in having attained a position in the academy before his status became something less than a privilege.) Introducing and appropriating Heidegger’s discussion of time, Placher is a little apologetic. Given what we now know of Heidegger’s personal and political failings, that is understandable. But, of course, no similar apologies are offered when he draws upon the thought of, say, Foucault, about whom we also now know a good bit. He approves the fact that early Christian communities were countercultural enough to challenge patriarchal social structures of their time but is less eager to consider that Christian communities, since they are always countercultural, might also have to challenge some currently fashionable feminist claims. He is worried that Christian calls to preserve the family bond even at the cost of self-sacrifice ignore the needs of abused women and children, but he does not seem equally worried that we are swimming in a divorce culture terribly harmful to children. Because entry into a country club requires approval of a membership committee, he notes (rightly enough) that exclusion, snobbery, and bigotry lie near at hand. But he does not also contemplate the way in which friendship necessarily excludes (without being exclusivistic). In his attempt to make vulnerability central to our understanding of God, he finds little if anything good to say about power. Eusebius is simply “Constantine’s court flunky.” And, acknowledging that Christians may sometimes feel driven to use force in a sinful world, he characterizes such a choice as “always” a betrayal of the “image of the power of love we have encountered in the powerless Jesus on the cross.” The possibility that force might itself be a work of Christian love-that, as Calvin put it, the magistrate who refuses to bloody his sword dishonors God-is one that a Presbyterian theologian might take more seriously. In short, he mirrors the values and assumptions of the academy and much of our elite culture more faithfully than he seems to realize.
Nonetheless, Placher aims to be a theologian and a churchman, and there is much in this book that invites our own theological reflection in response. The structure of the book is roughly as follows. Three chapters argue that love, not power, is the defining characteristic of God, that God’s eternity should not be described in a way that frees him from the burdens of time, and that the image of God as Triune is precisely an image of mutual love. Chapter four seeks to ground this vision of God in the New Testament Gospels-but always reading those Gospels in a manner that does not allow only one strand of the narrative to exercise power over other strands. In the fifth chapter Placher takes up briefly three critiques of that story of Jesus-that it presents a male savior who must be oppressive to women, that it presents a suffering savior who encourages victims to accept their oppression, and that it presents a unique savior whose claims must be offensive to adherents of other religious traditions. The last two chapters focus on community-the community of the Church, and the attempt to live as a faithful member of the Church within other communities (here, chiefly, the academy). In my own view, chapters three and four-discussing respectively the Trinity and the stories of Jesus in the Gospels-are the strongest and most interesting chapters in the book.
Perhaps the book’s central claim-certainly its first-is that we must overcome the tendency in Christian thought to emphasize God’s power or God’s invulnerability to the suffering that fills our world. Placher notes that a God defined solely in terms of power could not be relied upon to deliver us, for power itself is no guarantee of concern. Similarly, confessing God as Triune, Christians worship not One who is isolated in self-sufficient power, but One whose very inner being is marked by the reciprocities of mutual love. This “loss of self-independence in relation does not threaten individual identity but precisely creates it” in the being of God.
Surely Placher here unfolds a theme that has often been and should be a central emphasis in Christian proclamation. I suspect, however, that he must eventually qualify his claim more carefully if he does not wish to undercut the gospel itself. So worried is he that the image of a powerful God “comports well with many of the values that contemporary society still holds” that he largely ignores the fact that this image also expresses our creatureliness-our sense of contingency and dependence. Placher himself understands this, of course; he notes that avoiding the language of power risks avoiding talk of God as our creator and sustainer. Nevertheless, he does largely avoid such talk. If the desire for a powerful god reflects some of our values, the desire for a (simply) vulnerable god may equally well reflect our contemporary fear of dependence upon God.
More important, however, an understanding of God as the powerful Creator on whom our existence depends is the necessary background for hearing the story of Jesus as gospel-for hearing it as the surprising and unexpected good news that the powerful God who created us is beside us and for us. Apart from that background, the story of Jesus can only be news, not the good news that it is. Similarly, the chapter on the Church as community perhaps moves too quickly to a conception of preaching as “retelling the stories” and underplays thereby the essential gospel proclamation that in the Jesus of these stories the powerful God is “for us.” In short, Placher’s instructive reading of the Gospels needs to place those narratives within the context of the larger biblical narrative-within the context of the Hebrew Bible, which is also Scripture for Christians.
At certain moments Placher himself must, in fact, appeal precisely to the language of power in order to depict accurately the message of the Gospels. For example, responding to the charge that the story of Jesus encourages victims to accept their suffering, and seeking a way to urge victims to fight back and avoid victimization, he notes that Jesus’ suffering is not that of a passive victim. Rather, it is “the suffering of someone out to win in the struggle with evil” (emphasis added). He affirms language that speaks of Christ engaged in conflict, defeating the forces of evil, and winning a decisive victory. Thus, it turns out, “orthodox Christology does not offer a model of lying down and letting evil roll over you.” Resisting such evil is not, it now appears, a “betrayal” of the gospel of the cross. In other words, in order to come to terms with a norm of contemporary culture, he has inverted the Augustinian-and, I think, better-notion that force used in defense of oneself is suspect, but force used in defense of the needy neighbor may be a work of love. To the degree that we seek to let biblical narrative depict the world within which we live, there is much to be said for that Augustinian view, however out of step with currently popular affirmations of the self it may be. And if we have succeeded in being this countercultural, we may also find more room than Placher does for other forms of power in service of others-for example, a hierarchically ordered ministry within the church.
There is much else here that might also serve as food for reflection: Placher’s willingness to identify becoming a Christian with entrance into a Christian community (contrary to the recent emphasis upon individual spirituality), his very clear discussion of the psychological and social analogies for the Trinity, a brief but helpful discussion of the relation between historical research and the Gospels, an equally brief but equally helpful treatment of the relation of Christian faith to other faiths, and his seasoned and experienced discussion of the possibility of teaching Christian theology in the pluralistic academy. But questions of power and vulnerability are at the heart of the book, and if Placher’s argument on those questions does not fully satisfy, it will nonetheless stimulate continued reflection on a topic of genuine theological significance.
Gilbert Meilaender teaches at Oberlin College.