Athens and Jerusalem
  • Friday, May 3, 2013

Review by Robert W. Jenson

By the time this review is published, Anthony Baker’s book may be the current theological big thing. As of this writing, graduate students are talking about it at major seminaries, and it got a session at the last convention of the American Academy of Religion. If the buzz continues, I predict it will divide the spirits: some will announce the founding of a whole new way of theology; some will find the project merely preposterous; and some — like me — will alternate, finding one discussion illuminating and the very next bizarre. For an example of the good kind, a penetrating treatment of Thomas Aquinas on nature and grace; for an example of the other, an exegesis of the Annunciation — which unfortunately is the pivot of Baker’s argument and to which I must return.

Diagonal Advance
Perfection in Christian Theology
By Anthony D. Baker
Cascade. Pp. 348. $39

To be sure, a discussion that will continue and flourish will require an epidemic of readers’ persistence. Baker has jammed a lot into one book — ten years of far-flung reading, from Spencer to Maximus Confessor to Alain Badiou to wherever his fancy took him: a pleroma of ideas; a disparity of conceptual and rhetorical styles; and byways, sidebars, and hints not explicitly developed, like that “diagonal” in the title. It makes for a bumpy read. I hope not too many readers are put off, since if you keep going the book does finally fascinate.

Basically, Baker has a story to tell: the history of a doctrine of human perfection, of Western Christianity’s answer to the question “What is our goal and how do we get there?” He recounts it under the headings “Inceptions,” “Emergence,” “Distortion” — poor Duns Scotus is again the fall’s systematician — and possible recovery or “Reprise.” The narrative is on the surface an essay in the history of an idea but becomes self-referential, casting itself as an event in the history it tells and so making the whole narrative a theological proposal — much in the fashion of Baker’s mentor, John Milbank.

There are two inceptions, one in Athens and one in Jerusalem, but it is Athens that makes the real beginning, that raises the question of human perfection and sets the parameters of Baker’s narrative.

The Athenian inception is said to occur in the myths and their cultic enactments — the tragedies and daily practices — that shaped the religious life of Athens. Here according to Baker is the beginning of philosophy, which thus lies not with such as Parmenides or Socrates but with Aeschylus and the stories of Titans and Olympians.

In the myths we see gods and humans who belong to each other, who desire union with each other, who indeed have children begotten in such union. These affairs end tragically: the gods are compromised by their transgression of the line between earth and heaven and the humans destroyed by running against it. But the goal is set: human perfection would be divine-human union in which divinity was not compromised and humanity was not undone.

Here is a fundamental worry about the book, for within the argument of Baker’s narrative this beginning is surely antinomic. He chides “theologians” for not finding Greece’s contribution to and problem for Christian thinking in the active gods of the myths and cult but instead in Plato’s and Aristotle’s remote and uninvolved divinity. (Disclosure of my possible bias: only one such miscreant is named, Robert Jenson.) But we do this because that is what the Fathers in fact did through whom Greek thought entered Christian theology: they did not “harvest” — as Baker puts it — the myths but denounced them and their liturgies as idolatry, and turned to Platonists and Aristotle for their partners in discourse. Yet these very Fathers will be touted as the creative carriers of the emergence Baker will narrate in the bulk of the book.

I will not similarly go into Baker’s account of theological doings in Jerusalem. It will be enough to say that after an arguable construction of the history, he portrays its outcome as the posit of a sheerly sovereign God, who again and again descends to move his people on their way and then ascends to leave them on their own; who — not to put too fine a point on it — can take his people and leave them alone.

Baker summarizes the inceptions: Athens offers participation in gods who are imperfectly divine, Jerusalem offers a God too perfectly godlike for human participation. This is a setup for synthesis, which is supposed first to emerge with the Annunciation to Mary.

According to Baker, Mary’s pregnancy is the result of JHWH’s “erotic transgression” of the line between heaven and earth, explicitly paralleled to that of Zeus with Io, by which Zeus became ridiculous and Io lost her humanity. But this one does not end that way because it is “JHWH himself,” the absolutely sovereign Lord, to whom metaphysical barriers mean nothing, who is suddenly “filled with longing” for a mortal woman. Israel’s God is so sovereign that his transgression of the line between heaven and earth effectively erases it, opening the way for a responding human eroticism that does not undo our humanity.

As a reading of Luke’s text, this is at best impossible. At no point do the text’s language or ideas suggest a divine-human erotic affair. But we should perhaps just register that and then take the construction as a sheer dogmatic posit, which may be appropriate in itself.

The history of Christian thought — or it would be more accurate to say, of Western Christian thought — is thereupon narrated as the progressive “emergence” in the New Testament, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus, and Thomas of theology with the logic of the Annunciation.

I am out of space, and will not go into the “Distortion.” I will end by posing two questions for readers to decide for themselves. First, is the logic Baker construes around the Incarnation congruent with the broader logic of the Church’s faith? Second, do the Fathers, also as portrayed by Baker, in fact follow that logic?

The Rev. Robert W. Jenson is professor emeritus of religion at St. Olaf College.

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