Towards an Empty Theology: a brief thought on kenosis

Kenosis is the idea of renouncing one’s own nature in order to take up another nature. In theology it comes in when Christ renounces the infinite nature of divinity in order to take up and exist in human form.  Most are prone to think that (or at least in the tradition I am in) God becoming human was a self-restriction or limitation that God underwent in order to provide some kind of restoration to creation. Oppositely, I read kenosis as a type of ‘ultimate becoming’: God didn’t lose part of God’s own nature in becoming human; becoming human is part of what it means for God to be completely manifest. This exposes God’s interaction with humanity even in God’s own being—it is not that humanity is a necessary support for God’s existence but that humanity only is what it is because God is (as in being) who God can potentially be. Kenosis might mean something like “self-emptying for the purpose of fulfilling the goals of another” or “becoming what someone else is in order to communicate with them”, but I don’t think only imagining its meaning in negative terms such as ‘loss’ or ‘give up’ does the word proper justice.

So—while one post can’t touch all the details—I would say that theology as a discipline must kenotically empty itself in order to be what it is. This would mean that theology must become physics, politics, art, etc. in order for theology to ultimately become as a discipline in its own right. This does not mean that theologians should just do art or politics for the purpose of doing theology: this is just an act of co-opting something for personal ambition/gain. Studying physics as a theologian should mean being a physicist for the sake of physics (i.e. serving other disciplines for other disciplines). By becoming a ‘servant of the sciences’, theology could actually start to be relevant to people outside it being categorized as Theology. Maybe Christian scholars will soon be (or already are?) bringing the theological discipline into a secular ecumenical project beyond the concerns that Christians—or even secular theology—deem important. Yes, internal ecumenism is great, but when does it become too self-referential? In a world where language and communication cannot survive on only representing or referencing the realities of the world, and use determines the meaning of an idea, then how successful can internally-referential ecumenism ever really be?

Given the postmodern shifts in language and hermeneutics, Christian scholarship is given room to breathe. Differing voices in the Christian community can be faithful to the gospel narrative without conforming to status quo interpretations heralded by potentially damaging standards. Culture is not the object of our vision; it is the lens of our vision. A foundationless and empty Christianity then functions as a trans-cultural truth; being so, it must offend every culture at some point. So maybe ecumenical options should be spoken of in terms of how offended a culture is at the implications of the gospel rather than trying to capture a unity based on the post-traumatic joys it brings. If that is the case, true theology could only be done outside the church as an institution. Wherever the Spirit of God is, there is the church, in all grace.

When the differences in the accounts of a tradition, experiences, rationalities, sciences, and scriptures confront one another they ‘resonate’. In order to consider the various sources of theological interpretation, a theologian’s job is to find the optimum point of resonation between the sources.Christian’s as a collective must be willing to give up self-referential pursuits in order to find God’s work outside of Theology. This is a vicarious position to take—perhaps this is what Bonhoeffer meant when he suggested that Christians ought to live as if everything depended on them: faithfully before God even if there were no God; or what Cone was hinting at when he said that the true prophet of the gospel of God must become both “anti-Christian” and “unpatriotic.” It is true that this might destroy Theology as it stands, but that is part of the gospel. After all, what is repentance without the risk of losing oneself?


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