Monday, March 30, 2009

Transforming Theology: "Beyond Monotheism but not Academia"

The Transforming Theology folks send me free books to read and enjoy. The only catch is that I am supposed to blog about what I am reading. It's actually a pretty good deal. Props to TT! Now it's time for my end of the bargain. I need to engage one of those books. So here goes.

Laurel Schneider's book Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity is definitely written for an academic setting. It's insightful and deep but uses a lot of academic lingo and extended quotations. If you like words that your computer's spell check won't recognize, then this book may be of great interest to you. A few gems include: communotheism, omnicentricity, and rhizomorphic. That can be a bit stale if you're hoping for an action-adventure book. The saving grace is that Schneider also includes references to The Matrix, REM, and Star Trek. It's a nice combination.

In this interdisciplinary book, Schneider brings many different tools to task: pop culture, process theology, church history, literature, feminism, postmodernism, etc. It's definitely an ambitious book that must have taken a considerable amount of time, thought, and research to write. So what the heck is this thing about? Simply stated: overturning the "logic of the One" in favor of a "logic of divine multiplicity."

In Part One, Schneider criticizes and challenges the "logic of the One" that led to the development of monotheism. She does this by tracing the historical development of monotheism. It developed at a time when religions and nations were defining themselves against one another. Lines had to be drawn. And the "right" side had to be declared as "right." Monotheism became a polemic way of enforcing the righteousness of one group over and against another group. For example, Schneider says, "Monotheism as the 'conviction that only one God exists; no others need apply' became, for the Enlightenment champions of European culture, a marker of evolutionary progress, a high sign of rationalism, and thereby proof positive of the superiority of those religions and cultures" (23). In other words, the "logic of the One" suggested that there could only be one right God, one right ruler, one right country, one right culture, etc. All other theologies, leaders, nations, cultures, etc. were considered wrong, unenlightened, and in need of help to change. Everything was divided into two groups: the good and the bad. This simplistic division of right-versus-wrong produced the self-righteous logic that led to holy wars, the Inquisition, slavery, etc. When one group is the only right one, with the only right God, then all other groups must be converted or destroyed. All diversity and change is seen as bad. Judaism's emerging emphasis on a single cosmic God was combined with Greek philosophy's commitment to abstract universal claims to give Christianity a monotheistic understanding of God. Then, under the influence of Constantine, Christianity developed strict orthodoxies that rejected all other theologies as heresy. As Christianity became the civil religion of the Roman Empire, "the logic of the One" served as the cornerstone to theology and politics. Those in power used this logic to claim that there could only be one God, empire, emperor, religion, pope, orthodoxy, etc. Christianity began to look like the Roman Empire, and visa versa. This relentless thirst for only "one" way of understanding things also took hold in the development of science. From Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking, there is an emphasis on universal laws and a goal to find a theory of everything. The problem with the "logic of the One," Schneider claims, is that it "functions as an ideology that in fact disallows ambiguities of experience to occasionally contradict oneness" (81). Thankfully this reductionistic "logic of the One" in religion, science, and politics is being challenged through postmodern theology, quantum mechanics, and global collaboration. And that is where the next part of Schneider's book comes in. She moves from deconstructive criticism to reconstructive imagining.

In Part Two, Schneider describes the "theology of multiplicity" that she hopes will replace "the logic of the One." The heart of her "theology of multiplicity" is based on the incarnation. She argues that Jesus revealed a God who is incarnational by God's very nature. God is embodied. And that's the key to divine multiplicity. Bodies are continually changing, developing, and growing. If God is truly an incarnational God, then God changes, develops, and grows along with us. Since bodies are different in each new moment, God is different in each new moment. Bodies change. Thus, an embodied God changes. Since God is incarnational, God is dynamic and irreducible. In the author's words, "the embodied divine shatters illusions and static categories of persons and things" (205). There can be no strict doctrines or static orthodoxies that define God. God is beyond definition. God is enigmatic. That is why multiplicity is so important in Schneider's theology. A "theology of multiplicity" takes into account the incarnational character of God. In the author's words, "Multiplicity is a dialect of porous openness, implicating a divinity that is streaming, reforming, responding, flowering, and receding, beginning...again" (162). Multiplicity appreciates "shape-shifting, abundance, finitude, tehom, and story." (137). Thus, for Schneider, theology should be done through the mediums of "poetry, myth, and story" (128) from a "theology of multiplicity" instead of the universal claims and objective truths from the "logic of the One."

In Part Three, Schneider offers some ethical implications of a "theology of multiplicity." Basically, she argues that for an appreciation of the diversity that is present in all bodies. Bodies are all different. Bodies are changing. Bodies are changing differently. So there can be no universal way to understand all bodies. Each body must be appreciated for its uniqueness. Thus, ethics in a " logic of multiplicity" must be characterized by aspects such as fluidity, accompaniment, solidarity, and presence (204). Instead of summed up in simple rules, ethics must be approached through present love. For the author, "ethical love is the actualized recognition of the presence of others" as they are (205). This love is "temporal, present, embodied, transient, creative...intimate, partial, responsible, and never nostalgic (206). Love must be embodied from one concrete person to another concrete person. Love cannot be abstract. Love must be concrete. And, finally, she makes the point that "God is Love" because "God comes into being specifically, without abstraction" (206). In other words, God is love because God embodies love to embodied people. In the end, embodied love is the ultimate ethical principle for Schneider.

Beyond Monotheism is an engaging book, but one that I didn't find to be practical or groundbreaking. While I appreciated many creative turns in this book, I have already encountered many of these ideas in feminist, womanist, postmodern, and process theologies. In fact, many of these ideas are covered more concretely and accessibly in several other recent books, including On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process by Catherine Keller and How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins. If the concern of Transforming Theology is to actually transform theology, then books need to be accessable to a wider audience. The chasm between academic theology and lay theology needs to be bridged. Unfortunately, Beyond Monotheism doesn't help bridge that gap. It's great stuff, but it's not going to gain the interest of more than a very small margin of Christians. Academic theologians like Schneider need to figure out a way to translate their books for people sitting in the pews of churches. Innovative theology is important for more people to read. Maybe academic theologians need to publish two versions of their books: one for academics and one for real people. And by "real people," I just means a wider audience. Tell us common folk why a "theology of multiplicity" matters for our real lives. Make it brief, engaging, and practical. We need to work together in order to truly transform theology.

Besides, ain't this book about concrete embodiment?!

1 comment:

  1. I could not agree more about your academic theology comments!!