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Clark West
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If you've read this article by Nicholas Kristof and found yourself at one and the same time both sympathetic and hostile to his analysis, my hunch is its because what his analysis lacks is a properly theological understanding of how the principalities and powers work on good people, never mind the so called deplorables. A good dose of William Stringfellow would help Kristof get clearer at what I think he wants to say. For example, here's this nugget: "However many evil men hold places in the American establishment, they are far, far outnumbered, by my tally, by those bereft of conscience, so pathetically have they been dehumanized by the principalities and powers for which they are acolytes. And if the moral problem on such supposedly exalted levels of society is not so much wicked men as morally retarded men, then think of the cruel and somber daily existence of the... Continue reading
Posted Apr 7, 2017 at
This morning I woke up and saw this NY Times article about the doctors and psychologists involved in and justifying the horrific use of torture by the C.I.A. Because I have been listening to a lot of political satire for my academic work of late, I immediately thought of Randy Newman's classic and scathing satire, I Just want you to hurt like I do, available on youtube here. Originally written, I believe, to be a satire on the plethora of "We Are the World" type Hollywood charity programs, here Newman speaks as a father singing with a rising power ballad crescendo about how his abuse of his family is his way of 'helping' them to experience his own suffering. Its about as biting a political satire in just four minutes as I am aware of. And then I read this passage in the NY Times article: In an article titled... Continue reading
Posted Dec 11, 2014 at
Steve, This may be a naive question, but what if the organization insists that a core belief is sexual expression only within the context of heterosexual marriage. In other words, if they insist that this is an essential part of their religious identity. I have heard it said by some evangelicals that those who support same sex marriage and/or non-heterosexual sexual behavior are not actually Christian. Of course I disagree, but why would this exclusion be any different from excluding a non-Christian from leadership. IF their theology rejects as non-Christian the non-celibate lgbt person, regardless of how that person self-identifies, can one restrict them legally without wading into the murky waters of privileging certain theological systems/beliefs over others? In other words, could not your argument in your first paragraph be made by those who run afoul of your restriction in your second paragraph? How would you respond?
Great to hear!
Toggle Commented Dec 4, 2013 on Annelise Riles at
William Stringfellow is a gift who keeps on giving. Through my contacts with folks who knew and loved Stringfellow, I have come to know the remarkable journalist, activist, and Stringfellowian fellow traveller Nathan Schneider. A few years back Nathan wrote a wonderful piece on Stringfellow called The Biblical Circus of WIlliam Stringfellow. A deeply sensitive reading of the weird and inspiring combination of biblical faithfulness, social and ethical passion, and riotous sense of humor that was Bill Stringfellow and his life partner Anthony Towne, I was quite impressed. Then to my delight, I was led to another remarkable piece Nathan wrote, "Why the World Needs Religious Studies" on the importance of religious studies as an academic discipline. Those of us who dig in the mines of the humanities are often on the defensive these days and Nathan's piece is now one of most widely cited and influential short works on... Continue reading
Posted Dec 4, 2013 at
As I continue my work on a writing project focused on William Stringfellow, I have been greatly encouraged by a growing band of companions on the way. Recently Frank Alexander, law professor at Emory University and director of their Center for the Study of Law and Religion, sent me a wonderful packet of material related to Stringfellow. Among these was a remarkable essay and tribute to the work of Milner S. Ball, a theologian and for many years a professor of law at the University of Georgia. I have just finished an exhilarating essay of Ball's, entitled "Don't Die Don Quixote: A Response and Alternative to Tushnet, Bobbitt, and the Revised Texas Version of Constitutional Law." I confess that it both fascinates and dumbfounds me--Ball's thought is, for this theologian at least, an alternate universe: close to the ground of contemporary constitutional law theory, full of references to Karl Barth,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 19, 2013 at
Here at the Episcopal Church at Cornell, a number of us have been getting more and more excited exploring the bracing theological vision of William Stringfellow, who was a lay theologian and lawyer by training, close friend of Daniel Berrigan (Berrigan was at Stringfellow's house when the FBI 'caught' him for his anti-war activities), and biblical theologian of the highest order. In the sixties when he visited the United States and was given a tour of Harlem where Stringfellow did much of his theological/legal work, Karl Barth declared that Stringfellow was the voice to whom American Christians ought to be listening. More recently, Rowan Williams, one the finest English language theologians of our time, suggested that Stringfellow, who had a mere semester's worth of formal theological training, was one the most important American theologian of the past fifty years, a writer of "astonishing originality and power." Significantly, Stringfellow's work has... Continue reading
Posted Apr 10, 2013 at
When things get heated in today's culture war over human sexuality, one sometimes hears this quip from those in favor of marriage rights inclusive of LGBT people. "If you are against gay marriage, then don't get one!" The implication seems to be that religious conservatives are guilty of meddling in decisions that affect others, but not themselves. But this is simply not fair to conservatives and a point made by William Connolly, in his book Why I am Not a Secularist suggests why. It is not only that marriage equality will transform the broader culture in ways troubling to conservatives. This is true, but the challenge hits closer to home. Opening up the possibility that heterosexual ('traditional') marriage is no longer universally normative puts those who have invested much in it being just that, in a new ethical and political space. It may be that they have never considered for... Continue reading
Posted Jun 7, 2012 at
Thanks, Steve, for pointing this out. Existential resentment is a scary beast, and humility, among other spiritual gifts, is much needed.
Toggle Commented May 2, 2012 on Let's Blow Up a Bridge? at
Thank you, Taryn and Steve, for your kind words in comments to my previous post. As for favorite Connolly reads, maybe its like arguing over barbecue. We could argue over Kansas City versus East Carolina sauces, but why fight over multiple riches? Chapter Four of Identity/Difference is a marvelous read, especially as Connolly cautions against the cruel drive to attribute responsibility for trauma which Christians, among others, are often tempted towards (Augustine, for example, suggesting that the women raped during the sack of Rome may have been too haughty and thus were being 'humbled' by God!) What really won me over to Connolly was his remarkable response to a critique of his reading of Augustine by the feminist theologian Kathleen Roberts Skerrett. Rather than repeat the obvious criticisms of Augustine, which it is all too easy to do, (see above), he acknowledged his own tendency to over-react to Augustine, as... Continue reading
Posted May 2, 2012 at
Thanks for commenting, Frank. You are right about Connolly's nervousness regarding attunement. As a theologian deeply engaged in the Christian mystical tradition, I have come to share his reticence here. It is not that harmony is unimportant, nor is attunement always wrong. (I think Connolly would agree). Quite often, its a crucial part of discerning what Connolly means by 'the event' and moving fruitfully in its wake; surfing it, so to speak, which is an aspect of creativity. Its that when it becomes the ultimate telos, especially in a theo-political register, it has a hard time dealing with that which resists its ordering impulses. Augustine's aesthetic theodicy is a good example of this danger of a harmonizing imperative, and I am with Connolly on that. Brent Shaw's recent book, Sacred Violence, is a rather stunning work of fine-tuned historical analysis regarding Augustine and the so-called Donatists of North Africa, which points out the real-world (and rather devastating) consequences of Augustine's over-emphasis on a theology of love as always moving toward attunement with divine ontological and political order. Foucault's late essays on parrhesia would be another way to see the difference between certain 'minor' strands of Cristian thinking and the Augustinian tradition. Anyway, I very much appreciate your work, and look forward to reading your revision of it!
I too was at the recent lecture here at Cornell by William Connolly, of whose writing I have long been an admirer. Connolly's talk of cowboy capitalism's imbrication with right-wing evangelicalism and the need for an alliance of secular-religious left bodies ought to be required reading for those seeking social change. For those on the religious left working in secular settings like Cornell's, his book, Why I am Not a Secularist is also invaluable. Connolly is worried about cynicism on the left, and seeks allies among theologians like Catherine Keller and complexity scientists like Stuart Kauffman, who like him, are seeking to cultivate what he calls 'little spaces of enchantment'. At the lecture, one questioner suggested, in a somewhat bemused tone, that at times Connolly, an avowed atheist, sounded almost mystical! Indeed, and for those of us schooled in the thought of Foucault, Derrida, Cixous, Peguy, as well as in... Continue reading
Posted May 1, 2012 at
Great post, Steve!
Great post, Steve. As Camus said, when we can imagine Sisyphus as happy, we've begun to understand something of the religious spirit (he doesn't put it quite like this, but its close!)
On the other hand, there's the view of gay Roman Catholic priest/theologian James Alison, whose interview on some of the same issues is at dot commonweal here: And in the Church of England, today the new Dean of historic St. Paul's cathedral announced his support for marriage equality. See here:
Thanks, Michael. I missed that. And of course, Steve has been a tremendous help to me in learning to distinguish between theological and legal reasoning on these matters. What may be obvious as a theological matter is by no means how the law will see it. In this case, keeping these separate seems crucial, as intra-catholic debates over the legitimacy of the mandate (formal vs. material co-operation with evil etc.) may not matter at all to the courts if called upon to decide if there has been an infringement. That's why I'm curious as to whether the bishops can legitimately claim to speak legally for these other entities. By the way, I sometimes joke that since the Law School here at Cornell is just a quadrangle away from the Religious Life offices, keeping these thought worlds separate in my mind is no easy feat! They mingle in the space between us!
Michael, I think this is a marvelous post, one with which, as a theologian I entirely agree. I serve in a hierarchical church, one with bishops, etc. and I know first hand the truth of what you say and the danger of clerical overreach on these matters. And yet, I wonder if the legal system in the U.S. will agree. The deference shown in property disputes by the Supreme Court to hierarchical churches and their canon law, which do give the bishops significant authority whether the people like it or not, is a concern. Even after Jones v. Wolf and the articulation of neutral principles as opposed to always deferring to hierarchies, do the bishops still have legal authority in this arena, to which the Court would defer? I suspect they do in their parishes, but I'm not aware of to what extent they have control over entities like Catholic hospitals and Catholic Charities. Can they speak for these institutions and have a canonical, legal authority that the U.S. Court system will defer to? In other words, if the bishops say that the HHS mandate violates the religious freedom of Catholic Charities, even if Fr. Snyder, CC's director states otherwise (I know there has been some confusion regarding his stand on this), are they canonically, legally authorized to speak for Catholic Charities on this? If not, how can the bishops make a freedom of religion claim on behalf of entities over which they may not have any direct control? Is it posturing, or real legal (because canonical) authority? In any case, I am deeply grateful for your articulation of the sources of authority in the church, about which, regardless of how the legal cases may turn out, I entirely agree.
In appreciation for Michael's post below, I want to add a bit of biblical back-up for that great theologian Chico Marx! This week we read at Morning Prayer John 9, the story of the man born blind. It is, in many ways, the classic text for an empirical theological mode. While fear of losing power (the Pharisees in the story), or fear of being thrown out of the synagogue (the blind man's parents) prevent those around him from seeing what is right before their eyes, the newly cured blind man expresses his incredulity at their (newly acquired) blindness: "The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes!' This, it seems to me, is one place to start in distinguishing what I would call the tradition of 'religious left' theology, the kind of progressive theology that we see... Continue reading
Posted Feb 15, 2012 at
Michael, I've been a huge fan of Stringfellow's for many years now. He really is amazing. I lead a study group every year on one of his books here at Cornell. His papers are here in the Cornell special collections, as he was a good friend of Cornell's most famous chaplain, Daniel Berrigan. Andrew McThenia, emeritus law professor at Washington and Lee, is one of Stringfellow's finest interpreters and has edited a wonderful collection, Radical Christian, Exemplary Lawyer, honoring Stringfellow's work. Stringfellow would be a great topic for a religion and law conference or even a part of a course on religion and law. Thanks for giving him a headline! --Clark
Toggle Commented Jan 21, 2012 on William Stringfellow at
David, I saw this article too, though I am much more skeptical than you about its intent. My reading of Bryson/George is that they are not very much interested in convincing FFA of anything, but in continuing their real goal, that of building a coalition of conservative Jewish/Christian/Muslim leaders to fight against same sex marriage and abortion. I think their audience here is not FFA at all, but these other religious conservatives they hope to join their cause. I read this piece as pure politics. Bryson's thoughts about Islam, about which she has written at length, are troubling. And George/Bryson's defense of the effort to stop the Muslim community center near ground zero is equally troubling. See their defense here:
Fantastic sermon, Taryn!
Clark West is now following Steve Shiffrin
Nov 20, 2011
Ain't that the truth! Camus is one of my favorite writers, whose thought has been a goldmine for me as a theologian. The Rebel and The Fall have been favorites of mine for awhile. Thanks for reminding me of this, Patrick.
Toggle Commented Nov 3, 2011 on Day of Judgment at