Book Plug: Philosophy Imprisoned. The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Incarceration.

I am happy to announce that Philosophy Imprisoned. The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration, edited by Sarah Tyson and Joshua M. Hall, is now available for preorder via Below is a brief description of the book taken from from Lexington’s website (an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield) and a list of contributors, including myself.Philosophy Imprisoned

Brief Description:

Western philosophy’s relationship with prisons stretches from Plato’s own incarceration to the modern era of mass incarceration. Philosophy Imprisoned: The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration draws together a broad range of philosophical thinkers, from both inside and outside prison walls, in the United States and beyond, who draw on a variety of critical perspectives (including phenomenology, deconstruction, and feminist theory) and historical and contemporary figures in philosophy (including Kant, Hegel, Foucault, and Angela Davis) to think about prisons in this new historical era. All of these contributors have experiences within prison walls: some are or have been incarcerated, some have taught or are teaching in prisons, and all have been students of both philosophy and the carceral system. The powerful testimonials and theoretical arguments are appropriate reading not only for philosophers and prison theorists generally, but also for prison reformers and abolitionists.

List of Contributors:

Eric Anthamatten; Anders “Andy” Benander III; Natalie Cisneros; Michael DeWilde; Vincent Greco; Timothy Greenlee; Spoon Jackson; Arlando “Tray” Jones III; Drew Leder; Chris Lenn; John Douglas Macready; Lisa McLeod; William Muth; Cynthia Nielsen; Aislinn O’Donnell; Andre Pierce; Atif Rafay and Ginger Walker


Willie James Jennings on Race, Place, Identity, and the Need for a Decolonized Christian Imaginary

Jennings Christian ImaginationIn August I will participate in Syndicate’s online symposium focusing on Willie James Jennings’s landmark study, The Christian Imagination. Theology and the Origins of Race. What follows is a preview of my discussion of key themes in Part III of Jennings’s book. I encourage you to check Syndicate’s website regularly for additional information, updates, and future symposia. Lastly, I hope that you will join us in August for the actual Syndicate forum dedicated to Jennings’s outstanding and timely work.

The central theme of Part III is “intimacy.” In chapter five, “White Space and Literacy,” Jennings discusses the double-sidedness of literacy for the oppressed in a racialized social environment and how literacy serves both emancipatory and colonizing purposes (207). In particular, he highlights how the misuse of Scripture and the imposition of a Christian-colonial imaginary (both with respect to interpreting the bible and the social and material world) helped to warrant, reinforce, and maintain the unjust sociopolitical and economic power relations between oppressor and oppressed. One of the most devastating effects of the Christian-colonial imaginary—and one that continues to impact the church today—is how it naturalizes segregationalist mentalities and practices (208). Such racialized ways of thinking, being, and interpreting the world see segregated schools, churches, and neighborhoods as “natural” and thus negate one of Christianity’s “most basic and powerful imaginative possibilities, the deepest and most comprehensive joining of peoples” (208).

Although Jennings does not devote significant textual space to an analysis of gender and feminist theorizing on these issues (a much needed task), he does point out how white male landowners played a central role in forming and de-forming the social and geographic landscape. As Jennings explains, “[i]n antebellum America, the household stood at the center of the social world of the new republic, and at the center of the household stood the male landowner” (235). Given the entrenched patriarchy at that time—a patriarchy bolstered by sociopolitical, legal, and religious discourses and practices—not only slaves, but also free women (and children) were locked into harmful and degrading dependency relations. Here we find an example that illustrates and supports some of Jennings’s most important and original claims: (1) place and identity are intricately linked, (2) Christianity’s colonizing practices ignored that connection entirely in their treatment of indigenous people and their land, and (3) colonial Christianity is undergirded by a deformed doctrine of creation whose enactment in praxis has serious sociopolitical, ethical, theological, and environmental consequences. That is, just as colonial powers had disregarded completely the constitutive role of place in forming the indigenes’ identity, similarly the white male landowners’ colonizing view of space and the asymmetrical, dominating power relations structuring the household became naturalized and understood as the “proper” and even God-ordained order of things. Moreover, with the implementation of Thomas Jefferson’s Land Survey System, which transformed natural landscapes into grid systems of sellable plots of land, the link between land and identity is not only disrupted and fundamentally altered, but it also ushers in a distinctively modern instrumentalized vision of land qua potential private property for economic benefit. In other words, concern for the intrinsic value and beauty of trees, meadows, mountains, and how place, land, and animals constitute a peoples’ identity is judged a hindrance to modern progress and divine mandate. As Jennings observes,

[t]he grid pattern of sellable squares of land signified the full realization of property ownership. It also displayed the complete remaking of indigenous land. Now, under the grid system, each space of land could be surveyed and designated for purchase by measurement and location. All native peoples, no matter what they claims to land, no matter what designations they had for particular places, no matter their history and identity with specific lands, landscape, and indigenous animals, were now mapped on to the grid system (225–26).

With his Christian-colonial vision of space, the white male landowner can justify his mastering of land (and people) as a God-given right and calling. Remaking the land into private property (not for the common good, but primarily for one’s own self-interest and benefit) was understood as a way to imitate God’s original creative activity. Interestingly, in this deformed doctrine of Christian-colonial creation, a new connection between body (people) and place (both social and physical) is constructed. Not only does the land become an extension of the landowner’s body, but also of his body’s vulnerability. Thus, he must fully possess the land and protect it from threats of any kind. Here property owner’s rights take center stage and become entangled in religious discourses about rights, divine sanctioning, and prosperity for the “elect.”

In short, in slave-holding America black biblical literacy in white space signified cultural and social fragmentation, as the slave was either forced to read the Scriptures through the master’s racialized (and gendered) hermeneutic or s/he had to acquire literacy in stealth, via subversive maneuverings and often alone and isolated rather than in an ecclesial community. Thus, given the wider racialized and commodity-driven social context, we see the “impotence of Scripture to enact a community at a historical moment” (210). Yet, as Jennings argues, this failure of biblical literacy to unite diverse populations is intricately linked to the Christian-colonial vision of space, place, land, and identity formation vis-à-vis these “spatial dynamics.” By denying this connection between a “landscape and its realities—water, trees, seasons, animals” and replacing it with a view of the land as “identified with its white male owner,” Scripture’s capacity “to help people reimagine the world was severely limited” (240). Moreover, the Bible’s confinement within a “hierarchical literary space” must be understand against the backdrop of the confinement of geographic space, which signals a distorted doctrine of creation. As Jennings observes,

[w]hat connected these spaces was the racial imagination that permeated both the creating and shaping of perception and helped to vivify both spaces. The result was fragmentation, not simply one affecting the Bible but also one effected by the performance of Scripture itself in these mangled spaces (241).

If Christianity is willing to acknowledge its failures and complicity in these colonizing and racialized practices, it can begin to re-ground, articulate, and live a doctrine of creation that respects the identity-facilitating connection between land and people—one that promotes a genuine and deep joining with others. “A Christian doctrine of creation is first a doctrine of place and people, of divine love and divine touch, of human presence and embrace, and of divine and human interaction. It is first a way of seeing place in its fullest sense. Christianity is in need of place to be fully Christian” (248).

Book Plug: Incarnational Realism. Trinity and Spirit in Augustine and Barth by Travis E. Ables

Travis E. Ables’s book, Incarnational Realism. Trinity and Spirit in Augustine and Barth, takes as its point of departure the late 20th century claim that Latin Christianity lacks a robust pneumatology, and this dismal state of affairs is due to Augustine’s problematic trinitarian theology. Ables, however, rejects this reading of Augustine and Latin Christianity and argues convincingly that Augustine is not guilty of the alleged Geistvergessenheit. However, this is not merely a book championing Augustine’s teachings; rather, as the book’s title indicates, Karl Barth’s doctrine of the Spirit, contrary to charges that his overemphasized Christology eclipses pneumatology, likewise has a role to play. In other words, Ables argues that both Barth and Augustine provide us with theologically rich teachings on the Holy Spirit that, when read together and properly synthesized, offer important correctives to contemporary trinitarian theology.

In particular, Ables focuses on the shortcomings of trinitarian personalism and trinitarian idealism. Ables worries that both contemporary expressions of trinitarian teaching are too reductionistic and thus ultimately fail to maintain “the integrity of God’s reconciling act in the economy of salvation” (180). On the one hand, Ables’s concern regarding trinitarian personalism is that it diminishes the essential character of God’s act in history, rendering it as “an accidental occasion or concrete illustration of what is essentially a purely metaphorical relationship between human community and divine community” (ibid.). In other words, the metaphorical relationship becomes so primary that it downgrades the revelatory significance of the Triune God’s work in salvation history to Jesus’s “exemplary relational existence as Son to the Father” (ibid.). On the other hand, trinitarian idealism is overly smitten with Hegel’s Geist. Here “God’s self-revelation in the economy is only possible as a result of the necessity of God’s self-alienating otherness internal to Godself” (181). In this narrative, God is not depicted as pouring out his love in history but rather as incorporating “history into Godself in what sometimes begins to look like a startlingly narcissistic picture of self-reflexivity” (ibid.). Finding neither account satisfactory, Ables argues for a trinitarian theology wherein “the singularity of divine self-donation in Jesus Christ is the material content of trinitarian doctrine as such” (181). This claim is, in fact, what Ables has in mind with the term “incarnational realism.” For not only is the incarnation the “material content of trinitarian doctrine,” but it is likewise “the measure of our knowledge of God, [and] the agent of our redemption” (189).

In short, on Ables’s historically rich reading coupled with his own constructive contributions, there is no lack or absence of the Spirit in Latin theology owing to an fatal Augustinian misstep, nor does Barth privilege Christology to the detriment of pneumatology; rather, when the best insights of both theologians are synthesized, what we have is doctrine of the Spirit that emphasizes our participation in the mystery of God as dramatized or performed in the life of Christ. Since there is one work of God, Christology need not compete with pneumatology; rather, as Ables has shown, “[t]he stronger one’s Christology, the stronger one’s pneumatology” (186).

Academic Biography

Travis Ables is an independent scholar working in historical and systematic theology. His research interests focus on Christology, trinitarian theology, and anthropology in Augustine and his readers. He is the author of Incarnational Realism: Trinity and the Spirit in Augustine and Barth (Bloomsbury, 2013), and is currently working on a theological history of the cross within political, cultural, and artistic contexts (forthcoming from Fortress Press, 2017), as well as an introduction to the Victorines in the Cascade Companions series (forthcoming from Cascade Books, 2018). He holds a PhD in Theological Studies from Vanderbilt University.

Book Plug: Merleau-Ponty and Theology by Christopher Ben Simpson

Christopher Ben Simpson’s recent book, Merleau-Ponty and Theology, is the first book-length study bringing Merleau-Ponty’s thought into conversation with Christian theology. Simpson’s claim is that Merleau-Ponty’s insights, particularly those regarding the material realm (the “corporeal”), human bodies as living bodies (the “corporal”), and human social bodies (the “corporate”), can help one “think through afresh such Christian doctrines of creation, theological anthropology, Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology” (ix). The book is structured in two parts. Part One focuses on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical contributions, and Part Two offers specific “sites of interaction between Merleau-Ponty’s thought and Christian theology” (ix).

Given some of my recent work on Foucault and Gadamer, I was drawn to Simpson’s discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of our social reality and truth as “sedimented.” From one perspective, the idea seems to be that our social world—a world into which we are both thrown and which we actively construct—is fluid and open to change yet is also determinate and thus allows for the establishment of shared languages, traditions, and practices. Unlike other non-human animals, we do not simply “get used to an environment”; rather, “we think, we engage in symbolic behavior and so ‘institute “cultures”’ as a particularly human order of sedimentation. There are multiple ‘fields’ beyond the ‘“natural body”’ and its modifications: ‘imaginary fields, ideological fields, mythical fields’” (Merleau-Ponty, Institution and Passivity, 124; Simpson, 76). From another perspective, Merleau-Ponty describes truth as a sedimentation. Here the idea is that our present truth also involves past truths that have proven themselves as true; however, present truth, being historical and contextualized, is not a simple repetition of the past in the present. Stated differently, past truths must be taken up in new ways that speak to the realities of our own time. Tradition is not static, but dynamic, allowing “for both continuity and novelty” (145).

In Part Two, 8.2, Simpson discusses how various Christian thinkers including Maximus and Augustine have conceived of Christian tradition in ways consonant with Merleau-Ponty’s insights. Augustine, for example, emphasizes the historical and “fitting” character of revelation. Commenting on Augustine’s view, Simpson writes, “The revelatory ‘oracles’ of God were presented through and to humans in history ‘by certain signs and sacraments suitable to the times’ (Augustine, The City of God, VII.32, XVIII.41). Revelation, Augustine writes, was only understandable and ‘suited to our wandering state’ (Augustine, The Trinity, IV.1.1,2) inasmuch as it spoke to us through some created and so changeable (historically mutable) substance (Augustine, The City of God, XVI.6; Augustine, The Trinity, I.1.1,2, II.3.9,16, II.5.15,25). Thus revelation condescends, ‘stoops’ to us in order to ‘nourish our understanding and enable it to rise up to the sublimities of divine things’ (Augustine, The City of God, XV.25; Augustine, The Trinity, I.1.1,2). Lastly, similar to Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of tradition as that which is “handed over,” given, received, and reconfigured for the present, Christian thinkers such as Irenaeus and Gregory of Nazianzus have likewise understood the movement of Christian tradition as that which involves a “preserved continuity, unity, and catholicity in the midst of continually different and creative cultural and historical appropriations” (147).

Simpson covers many other theological topics such as divine transcendence, Christ as “vinculum between God, humanity, and nature,” God in the world, embodied spirituality, the Spirit and the Church, and so forth. Those interested both in gaining a deeper understanding of key concepts and emphases in Merleau-Ponty’s thought and (re)thinking traditional Christian themes in a phenomenological key will find Simpson’s book a treat.

Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment by Dr. Jill A McCorkel

Below is a brief description of my colleague, Dr. Jill A. McCorkel’s new book, Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment.

Since the 1980s, when the War on Drugs kicked into high gear and prison populations soared, the increase in women’s rate of incarceration has steadily outpaced that of men. In Breaking Women, Jill A. McCorkel draws upon four years of on-the-ground research in a major US women’s prison to uncover why tougher drug policies have so greatly affected those incarcerated there, and how the very nature of punishment in women’s detention centers has been deeply altered as a result.

Through compelling interviews with prisoners and state personnel, McCorkel reveals that popular so-called “habilitation” drug treatment programs force women to accept a view of themselves as inherently damaged, aberrant addicts in order to secure an earlier release. These programs work to enforce stereotypes of deviancy that ultimately humiliate and degrade the women. The prisoners are left feeling lost and alienated in the end, and many never truly address their addiction as the programs’ organizers may have hoped. A fascinating and yet sobering study, Breaking Women foregrounds the gendered and racialized assumptions behind tough-on-crime policies while offering a vivid account of how the contemporary penal system impacts individual lives.





Mini-Review: The Acting Person and Christian Moral Life by Darlene Fozard Weaver

In her recently published book, The Acting Person and Christian Moral Life, Darlene Fozard Weaver provides a thoughtful, challenging, and theologically astute analysis of the Christian moral life. Having examined recent trends and debates concerning Christian ethics from both Catholic and Protestant theologians, Weaver highlights the inattention as well as the lack of serious theological analysis given to moral actions. Where personal moral actions have been discussed—for example, the critical dialogue in contemporary Catholic circles between “traditionalists and revisionists”—moral culpability takes center stage in ways that continue to downplay or obscure the crucial and too often bifurcated relation between (1) sin as a power, force, and orientation, and (2) individual sinful acts. Weaver applauds contemporary Catholic theologians who have drawn our attention back to sin as a power and personal orientation, as well as those who have cautioned against past and present theologies of sin that encourage or promote legalism. However, Weaver argues that a robust theology of sin must not de-emphasize personal sins and the role they play in our moral development and our relationship with God and others. Speaking to these concerns in the latter part of chapter two, Weaver writes: “attention to sins makes a theology of sin more concrete without losing sight of the power of sin or of sin’s roots in the person’s orientation. It recognizes that the person negotiates her relationship with God in the acts she performs” (59).

In addition to Weaver’s clarity and non-polemical tone, another attractive feature of her book is her aptly chosen “real life” stories, illustrating her theoretical insights and adding existential depth and affective energy to her analyses. For example, in chapter six, where she discusses the important differences between forgiveness and reconciliation, Weaver provides a fascinating and theologically sensitive commentary on the tragic school shooting in Nickel Mines in 2006. The horrific event occurred on October 2, 2006, when gunman Charles Roberts entered an Amish school, shot ten female students—killing five of them and seriously wounding the others—and then proceeded to take his own life. “Within hours of the shooting, an Amish minister and several Amish men went to visit Robert’s wife and children to express their forgiveness, and another Amish man went to see Roberts’s father” […] At Roberts’s funeral, half the attendees were Amish” (162). As Weaver explains, the Amish believe that forgiveness is commanded by God, and thus the community’s immediate forgiving response to Roberts’s acts of violence is understood as a willful act of obedience. This is no way suggests that such a response was effortless or that those who chose to forgive did not struggle with intense feelings of anger, sadness, and the like. Forgiveness is not a one time act; rather, it is process, even a struggle that continues throughout one’s life. Weaver brings the point home by recounting Herman Bontrager’s commentary on the features distinctive to the Amish community’s way of practicing forgiveness.

“[F]or the Amish forgiveness is immediate rather than forestalled until the victim is emotionally ready to forgive. Forgiveness in this remains something to live into. The emotional dimension of forgiveness is directed and facilitated by practice. Moreover, as Bontrager notes, the practice of forgiveness is corporate and communal. ‘The community assumes the responsibility to forgive. […] In an offense of this magnitude Amish would never expect the individual alone to extend instant forgiveness. The community took responsibility to practice forgiveness knowing that the individual victims were too crushed to do it’” (163, Bontrager, “Limits of Forgiveness,” 7).

Bontrager also recounts a powerful scene he witnessed two years after the shooting in Nickel Pines. He was visiting an Amish family in Nickel Pines—a family whose eight-year old daughter, Rosanna, permanently disabled as a result of two of Charles Roberts’s bullets fired at her head, was being held by Charles Roberts’s mother. As Bontrager explains, Roberts’s mother comes weekly to read to Rosanna, “[s]he [Mrs. Roberts] gives care, and hopes for healing for her own wounded heart. Mary Liz and Christ, though weeping for themselves and for Rosanna, offer Mrs. Roberts hospitality, a space to mourn her son” (164; Bontrager, “Limits of Forgiveness,” 13).

Through this story of a concrete Christian community’s experience of tragedy and loss, we come to understand profound communal dimensions of forgiveness and how both forgiveness and reconciliation are volitional actions into which we grow and heal in community and communion with others.

Although I have provided a very incomplete “mini-review” of Weaver’s book, she has gifted us with a balanced, scholarly, and challenging study of what it means to be an acting person in relation to God and others and “to better understand how, by our acting, we involve ourselves with God—our first and final good—and the material and social goods that make up the proximate end of human life” (195).