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Chained to the Past: Lecture Two

What follows is a summary paraphrase of Kathryn Tanner’s second Gifford lecture (see also the night’s live twitter feed at #GiffordsEd). It is necessarily brief, lacking many of the vivid examples Tanner uses, but I hope it will provide a refresher for those who attended the lecture as well as a preview (of the video that is, as of Thursday morning, available here) for those who could not be with us. Whichever group you find yourself in, I invite your comments and questions in the field below.

Kathryn Tanner outlines the way in which finance-dominated capitalism structures our sense of time. She details how the past comes to constrict both present and future, as exemplified in the psychological and social effects of debt. Whether in the form of student loans or mortgages, a thirty-year commitment to debt-service does not factor in future uncertainties in the job market, creating a pressured combination of unyielding demand and instability.

Gifford #2 Still 1 copy

Tanner then shows the disturbing effects of a ‘core-periphery’ organisation of labour. Here, the corporation’s more profitable ‘core’ (the design & marketing team, deal-makers) is retained as company employees while the so-called inessential services (data entry, janitorial and maintenance) are outsourced or made the responsibility of subcontractors. Under the target of maximising shareholder value, ‘profits are forced ever lower as one proceeds down the nested chain of suppliers.’

Those workers at the bottom of the chain will often need to seek out supplementary loans. The constriction of debt is therefore added to the pressure exerted from the volatility of workers’ contracts, forcing them into ‘extremes of self-management.’ Tanner observes that such patterns of forced debt have a ‘disciplining effect on the whole of life, inclusive of both work and leisure.’ A person’s every present decision, or future plan, is bound to the choice for that past lending scheme, for which she is alone held responsible.

How, then, to disrupt this seemingly iron-clad temporal structure created by finance capitalism? Tanner locates her proposal with reference to Michel Foucault, who looked back to ancient philosophies of Stoicism and Cynicism for new methods of constructing the self. Tanner also wants to find an alternate structure, or anti-structure, for human subjectivities, with particular attention to their temporal dimension. She finds this in the manner Christian theologies have narrated the believer’s relation to the past with respect to both one’s own life (conversion testimony) and one’s scripture (figural readings).

Tanner’s Protestant account of conversion places strong emphasis on discontinuity.  Conversion is death to the old self and rebirth into a new form of existence. Because it is at the initiative of God in Christ, it is a breach with the productive self and, relatedly, the indebted self. If sin leads to a form of debt-slavery, Tanner memorably states, Christ becomes the ‘strange currency’ that breaks sin’s unrelenting bondage.

The way in which Christians read their pre-conversion pasts can be compared to a figural, or typological, reading of Scripture. This mode of ‘reading backwards,’ with reference to Richard Hays’ work, does not merely supersede the past; rather, it maintains the earlier meaning so as to preserve the disjunction with that which comes after. Every re-telling has an element of surprise.

Tanner is building the case that Christian construals of the past, exemplified in narratives of conversion and typology, have great potential for disrupting a subject’s sense of being chained to the past. New subjectivities become possible, beyond those that have been disciplined by finance-dominated capitalism. This view of identity emphasises the breach created by Christ’s intervention rather than the merely incremental change of one’s work ethic. ‘If Christians have a character,’ Tanner states, ‘it is a character-destroying character;’ it both ‘expects and promotes its deepest revision’ through encounter with Christ.

As a result, Tanner argues against salvation theories of a new, perhaps more intensive, form of obligation. Citing New College’s own Thomas Torrance, she argues that baptism does not create an anxious life of obligation to perform the perfection of God. Rather, the ‘graced state’ is such that ‘what one is asked to achieve is already one’s own in Christ.’ This transfigured state of subjectivity, with its implications for a ‘Protestant anti-work ethic,’ will be further developed in lectures to come.

I will add a question of my own soon, but for now want to invite the contribution of my colleague Simeon Burke, a New College postgraduate student.

4 replies to “Chained to the Past: Lecture Two”

  1. Very good summary. I just wondered how the change to an individual’s Christian faith can affect the all-pervading new spirit of capitalism in the new global society? Looking forward to the rest of the lectures

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  2. Simeon Burke says:

    In her 2016 Gifford Lectures, Professor Kathryn Tanner sets out to explore the effects of finance dominated capitalism (FDC) on the self-understanding of religious, and particularly Christian, individuals. In her second lecture, she takes this up with respect to time—‘Chained to the Past’, as I listened to it, was essentially a reflection on, and comparison of, the indebted past of the individual within the finance dominated capital paradigm and the notion of indebtedness within Christian existence. The lecture was organised in two parts with the first assessing the problem or plight inherent to the former and the radical, noetic solutions offered by the latter.

    I wish in this all-too brief response to further probe two foci of Tanner’s lecture and her grander framework: these are (1) Tanner’s focus on the noetic effects of finance dominated capitalism which are reversed by the powerful conversion and scriptural narratives and (2) Tanner’s emphasis on the individual (taken together, Tanner’s focus on the individual’s self-understanding). I will do so by asking the following question: how does a renewed self-understanding of the sort outlined by Tanner in the second part of today’s lecture actually affect collective Christian praxis? I do so with the important proviso that I agree, for the most part, with Tanner’s robust, and at times rather poignant description, of the Christian ‘anti-spirit’. But I still was left with questions.

    First, I note that Tanner has not wished to entertain questions concerning ‘what might one do, particularly as a Christian, to resist the FDC model’. Her focus is primarily noetic. While I do not oppose this in principle, I find it slightly reductive since—and here is my central claim—the purpose of Christian repentance is to do good works empowered by the spirit. One thinks of the soldier and the tax collector in the wilderness by the Jordan coming to John the Baptist and, having been baptised, asking him, ‘What then shall we do?’ (Luke 3.10-14). Tanner (rightly to my mind) strongly opposed legalistic models of Christian theology (and ecclesial life!) which compel newly converted and baptised Christians to keep constant tabs on their performance. But I query Tanner’s focus on self-understanding to the exclusion of Christian praxis. This is all the more imperative as we consider what it means to fulfil Jesus’ command to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s (if this command is at all relevant to today as I think it is)! While Tanner provided a compelling description of the power of Christian theologies to disrupt the FDC model and problematize the past, I was still left wondering, like the tax-collector and soldier, what I am meant to do in the meantime. When Tanner did allow some comment on this in the question and answer session, it was to hint at her tacit support for ‘revolution’. Again, I thought that the details of Christian praxis required unpacking, especially when one uses such a potentially explosive term as this.

    Second, I wanted to briefly mention Tanner’s emphasis on the individual. I have been slightly surprised that a communal ethic has not been an element as yet, at least as I have been listening, of Tanner’s attempts to reverse the Weberian project. I sensed that there were hints of the ecclesial and communal life in the ‘scriptural reading’ section of Tanner’s presentation. But the focus was mostly on individual conversion narratives with references to Augustine in his Confessions and echoes, perhaps, of Paul and his passionate plea in Romans 7. While, again, I do not oppose individual narratives of conversion, I consider this to be complemented by the ongoing witness of the church universal in the world. It is as individuals in community that we witness to one another the breaking of our bonds (economic and otherwise!) in the breaking of the bread. Going forward, it is my fervent hope that Tanner does justice to this communal and ecclesial component of the Christian life which offers a powerful antidote to the (at times poisonous) individualism inherent to the FDC model.

    1. GiffordsEd says:

      Thank you for the thoughtful remarks, Simeon. Your question about Tanner’s focus on the individual reminds me of Weber’s observations about the isolating effect of Protestant doctrine on the person such that she becomes an efficient capitalist subject. While we’re a long way from the dominance of religious belief that Weber describes, I think it’s worth revisiting his genealogical account to see a historical precedent for our own habit of starting with subjectivity.

      In the section on Calvinist doctrine, Weber speaks of a ‘feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual’ before God’s choice either for or against that person. He traces how religious belief can undercut the longstanding, notably communal, ‘means of grace’:

      ‘In what was for the person of the age of Reformation the most important thing in life, his eternal salvation, he was forced to follow his path alone to meet a destiny which had been decreed for him from eternity. No one could help him. No priest, for the chosen one can understand the word of God only in his own heart. No sacraments, for though the sacraments had been ordained by God for the increase of his glory, and must hence be scrupulously observed, they are not a means to the attainment of grace, but only the subjective externa subsidia of faith.’

      Weber continues that there is both ‘no church’ and, climactically, ‘no God’ that can break through to the subject in the disruptive manner Tanner describes. Tanner’s powerful language of conversion seems nowhere to be found; all that’s left is the rational ordering of one’s work ethic in order to, hope against hope, show that one has been chosen. What Weber is describing is a far more terrifying sense of being ‘chained to the past’–in this case, to a divine decree that precedes economic history. That, he identifies, helps drive the complex subjectivity that combines detached efficiency with anxiety.

      There are different causes for anxiety today, as Tanner has perceptively traced in the contemporary experience of indebtedness, but the isolation remains (we also can’t assume, even in a secular age, that such a historically effective ‘fear of God’ has simply vanished). So I think Tanner has to work with what she’s been given: a powerful individuating discipline in western economic systems formed by Protestantism.

      At the same time, Tanner clearly identifies, in her preview of lecture six, the need to think through Christian language about one’s relations to others. On that note, it is worth revisiting your thoughtful question at the first lecture about the limits of Weber’s focus on ‘western’ models of the person. You’ve already raised the cultural difference represented in first century scripture and its emphasis on conversion as social action. Hopefully we’ll also hear, perhaps through other blog comments, how cultures outside Weber’s frame of reference can make this a more ‘catholic,’ or global, account.

    2. Thank you for the reflection Simeon! I sense, perhaps because of the magnitude of the problems Tanner is describing, an urgent desire to fix the system through practical measures. While Tanner has focused in the past more or less upon types of changes to be made to the organization of Capitalism (final chapter of Economy of Grace), I really applaud her efforts to describe the spirit as she sees it through her lectures this year. As some of the comments from the first lecture seemed to note, Tanner wants to first describe the problem. I think she approaches the issue this way primarily because most Christians have absolutely no idea of the particular inner workings she is describing and hence have no reason to even form an alternative to the present system. Not too many theologians talk about derivatives or the sub-contracted workplace! In fairness though, I do hope that it is possible for some practical policy changes, etc. to be raised in response to these lectures, and I’m hopeful that this will come true once the problem, and the structure of a possible Christian response are detailed. I’m especially interested in what is to come due to Tanner’s comment in the Q&A session that she believes “grace is at work right now.” Maybe this is a hint toward an explanation of exactly what this grace is doing in terms of practical, structural resistance.

      As per the question regarding a communally focused anti-spirit, I think one could expand Tanner’s notions of the individual’s self-understanding, their pre- and post-conversion narratives, into the church as a whole. That would definitely be an interesting project to undertake in the future! I do know, however, that Tanner doesn’t regularly give attention to ecclesiastical concerns because she is of the opinion that it is more important to talk about what God is doing in the world as a whole. Perhaps, though, one could combine her efforts with a quite high notion of community understanding / formation that isn’t just an individual-based focus. I really enjoyed your desire to move in that direction. I too would definitely love to hear more about the part to be played by the community as a whole.

      Hopefully the future lectures will provide even more potential for exploring the themes you brought up further.

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