01 October 2005

boersma on atonement, violence, hospitality

I recently finished reading Hans Boersma’s thoughtful and creative work of theology, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (BakerAcademic 2004). Boersma is associate professor of religious and worldview studies at Trinity Western University as well as the J.I. Packer Chair of Theology at Regent College.

The bulk of the book, as is evident from the title, focuses on soteriology. In particular, it is an attempt to develop a contemporary approach to atonement theology that is, on one hand, deeply rooted in patristic, medieval, and reformation traditions of interpretation, while, on the other hand, addressing that theology to a postmodern context in which notions of hospitality and forgiveness have been significantly problematized (Derrida, Levinas, Zizek).

The basic shape of Boersma’s theology of the atonement remains that of Irenaeus, rooted in a notion of Christ’s recapitulation of salvation history in his own person, an approach that Boersma deepens and enriches by drawing upon the resources of contemporary biblical theology (e.g., Jesus taking up the vocation of Israel). Within this recapitulation motif, Boersma situates other approaches to the atonement: Abelard’s moral influence theory, Girard’s insights regarding mimesis, Aulen’s theme of Christus Victor, as well as an extended defense, re-situation, and development of the Anselmian paradigm of penal substitution.

Boersma, however, embeds this Irenaean model within a larger thematic of “divine hospitality,” beginning with the well-known saying of Cyril of Jerusalem that God “stretched out his hands on the Cross that he might embrace the ends of the world” (Catechetical Lectures 7.89). Thus, it is in the cross that we most clearly see God’s hospitality thrown open wide for the salvation of humanity. If we grant, however, that “hospitality” is a theme, both biblical and patristic, under which we may rightly sum up a theology of the atonement, it is also a theme that raises problems in the face of contemporary thought, as well as from within Boersma’s own Reformed tradition.

In the remainder of this post I will make some brief remarks concerning Boersma's account with regard to postmodern thought, leaving his reflections upon the Reformed tradition for another occasion.

On the contemporary scene, the thought of figures such as Levinas and Derrida raise problematic questions about the very possibility of any “pure” hospitality, suggesting that any act of hospitality, however seemingly altruistic, is also covertly violent. Derrida in particular envisions an always deferred eschatology of hospitality, an unconditional openness to the messianic future. To avoid violence, pure hospitality would have to offer unlimited welcome without any conditions or horizon of expectation, even though this risks terrible danger since, as Derrida notes, “the newcomer may be a good person, or may be the devil.”

Derrida recognizes that such a radical hospitality is, nonetheless, impossible to realize, limited by the conditions of time, space, and order, and thus must remain an ever-receding goal, the indeterminancy of which transcends our ability to speak of it. Any present exercise of hospitality will, therefore, be accompanied by violence: a concrete particularization, a choice of one over another, a desire for return and reciprocity, an economy of exchange, an enforcement of boundaries, a running up against finite limitations.

Boersma sees value in Derrida's discussion, noting that it does reflect the limitations and conditions under which we often find ourselves attempting to act hospitably. As Boersma notes,

...with a potentially infinite number of strangers to which I am summoned to respond, and with only a limited amount of time available, I can only stretch myself so far. I end up making choices that limit and exclude. (35)

But whereas Derrida laments such limitations and the violence of exclusion, Boersma is not so sure that “this necessary violence is lamentable” or that an unattainably eschatological notion “pure hospitality” necessarily condemns all our present choices. Derrida's lament, one might suggest, bespeaks both an over-realized eschatology that expects too much in the present as well as a eschatological indeterminancy in which the absolute future is forever postponed.

But Derrida's legitimate insights raise a further difficulty, Boersma suggests, since it would seem that God himself is implicated in violence, not only given the nature of the world, but also in the sending of his Son to be handed over to violence upon the cross. Boersma suggests, however, that such divine violence “may well serve the interests of God's eschatological hospitality,” in which a kind of pure hospitality will be secured (37).

One nagging problem running through this whole discussion, of course, is the question of what is meant here by “violence.” As Derrida seems to use the term, building upon Levinas, “violence” refers not only to acts of harm, coercion, and injury directed against the other, but also to every form of exclusion, every choice of this over that, every occasion upon which we would find satisfaction in hospitality reciprocated, and so on. All of these realities would mar the purity of an absolute hospitality.

And here is where, to my mind, Boersma's own account is insufficiently clear and fails to make, what seem to me, to be some crucial distinctions. It is not clear to me, for instance, whether or not Boersma sees violence as inherent to the created order as such, as Derrida appears to believe. That is to say, Boersma pays too little attention to underlying questions of ontology, which in a Christian perspective, must necessarily frame any discussion of violence in light of the doctrines of the Trinity and of the goodness of creation.

If violence, in the end, is a function not merely of sin, but of created finitude, then it is difficult to see how it is possible for there to be the eschatological absolute hospitality that Boersma holds forth in hope and the attainment of which can justify some forms of temporal violence on the part of both God and humanity. Such a hospitality would seem impossible, unless of course the eschaton involves in some way transcending our very createdness, which is a notion that strikes me as equally problematic.

While Boersma interacts significantly with John Milbank and some other figures prominent in what is known as “Radical Orthodoxy,” he seems to fail to engage Milbank on this particular level of basic ontology. Milbank's suggestion is to remind us of the Christian teaching that God is a Trinity of Persons, existing eternally in peace both as absolute difference and perfect unity, as well as ongoing reciprocal gift and exchange. It is this eternal movement of love that is the transcendent ground for the creation of the world and which establishes that violence has no ontological purchase in the order of things as created.

If this is our starting point, then, it seems to me that a very important distinction must be maintained between the world as created in its original integrity and the world as it is marred and deprived by sin and its effects. Since the order of the world, even as created in time and with limitations, would have involved making choices, postponing actions, limiting offerings, and enjoying reciprocity and mutuality, then we cannot inscribe violence into the very nature of such things without thereby questioning the goodness of creation itself. Moreover, it is not clear to me that created limitations upon hospitality will ever give way to a “pure” hospitality, even eschatologically.

From this, no doubt, follow other distinctions and discernments about the practice of hospitality in a present world that is, in fact, broken by sin, as well as how far Christian love may exercise its own logic of redemptive “violence” in its adamant refusal of the world's way of violence and in its service to a divine hospitality in which evil is overcome by good. Boersma handles some of these latter issues rather well, particularly in relation to the violence of the cross and the Anselmian notion of penal substitution. But his apparent confusion on the issue of basic ontology leads to some areas in which his exposition is not wholly satisfying.

Nevertheless, the bulk of Boersma's atonement theology is extremely helpful. He asks all the right questions, while at the same addressing issues of contemporary concern with proper deference to the great traditions of Christian reflection upon that redeeming act of divine hospitality: the cross of Jesus Christ.