The problem with ‘apocalyptic theology’

Underlying many of the recent criticisms of apocalyptic theology there seems to be a rather deep-seated anxiety about the ever-pervasive threat of instability. The worry seems to stem from the widely-held assumption that instability somehow defines ‘postmodernity,’ which is itself seen as nothing more than a kind of radical hyperextension of modernity. Such is our current existential crisis in the global capitalist, Internet Age. The problem with apocalyptic theology, in this view, is that it isn’t a particularly good remedy for this global sickness. With its emphasis on discontinuity and otherness, apocalyptic theology is immediately suspect as fostering a kind of Derridean rejection of ‘presence,’ ‘identity,’ ‘continuity,’ and the Universal. The language of the church as an ‘event’ could never help anyone secure a proper location, a place for the corpus mysticum toward which the world is supposedly ordered. With its emphasis on kenosis, dispossession, and mission, apocalyptic theology fails to account for the church as ‘habitable culture,’ a polis in its own right. Worst of all, apocalyptic theology is no good for ecumenism and the search for institutional unity among the churches. What we need is not the Barth of Der Römerbrief as the ‘apocalypticos’ say, but Balthasar’s truly catholic Barth. Apocalyptic theology, following the early Barth, is terribly iconoclastic, fideistic, and (God-forbid!) downright Kierkegaardian.

In a time of instability what we need is a theology of stability and this finally means we must root out apocalyptic from theology once and for all. After all, our salvation depends on it! Intellectual obscurity is only the least of our worries. If we are to move forward and be steadfast in our commitment to the continuation of the institutional church in the world, what is needed is a theological remedy to this instability. For the “Radically Orthodox,” the remedy is a recovery of a properly theological metaphysics, and in particular, a metaphysics that is “robust” enough to subvert those harbinger’s of ‘postmodern’ instability, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida (name your enemy!). You won’t ever hear anyone outright admit to this of course, but what is thought to be needed is really nothing other than a recovery of what Heidegger rightly derided as “ontotheology.” We could be still more precise than this: what is needed, for many, is a recovery of the doctrine of the analogia entis coupled with its proper Platonic scaffolding. In the end, with its search for a ground of Being, the eternal, the universal, Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and the One–neo-platonic participation metaphysics (if not especially in a Thomistic vein)–just is the metaphysics of conservatism par excellence.

 

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  1. ken oakes
    November 6, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Well roared, lion!

    I think the primary error of this post is the psychologizing and fetishizing of disagreement with the ‘the apocalyptic,’ (which is simply a part of loving Jesus, althought how one characterizes it is a different matter), as disagreements may range from the exegetical, to the pastoral, or even the theological, and not from some infantile fear of instability or the spectre of Kierkegaard. (Indeed, I suspect that Barth learned very little or even nothing from Kierkegaard, and anything that sounds Kierkegaardian in Barth, such as the hiddenness or the incommunicability of faith, he learned from his liberal teacher, Herrmann).

    As for privileging the Barth of Romans II, well, the Barth of Romans II changed at points, and even published his own form of Augustine´s Rectractiones (although I love the Herrmannian nature, the anti-Troeltschian impetus, and the sheer vim of Romans II).

    Finally, the analogia entis provides anything but stability, but more of a mystical practice of not-knowing the God we think we know, as in the moment of the every greater dissimilarity of the infinite God, which is itself, for Przywara, destabilizing and apocalyptic.

  2. November 6, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Point taken. But, many of our critics have in fact expressed a concern that apocalyptic theology fosters precisely a kind of instability, both with regard to the church’s external witness and the church’s internal continuity. So it is not really fair to characterize my post as a ‘psychologizing,’ for these concerns have been made explicit. So the fear of instability and even the spectre of Kierkegaard and Der Römerbrief is not something that I have pulled out of thin air.

    I am not convinced that the analogia entis can be construed apocalyptically though it seems that even some of our sympathetic critics want to do this. If there is a kind of agnosticism latent within the analogia entis it is an agnosticism within a metaphysical schema which has decided the terms and outcome of correspondence in advance. So, I think it is difficult to maintain that it is kind of ‘mystical practice of not-knowing,’ for the positive is always already something assured beyond the negativity of a “greater dissimilarity.” Apocalyptic, as far as I’m concerned, must forbid any kind of ontological stabilization of the terms by which God and creature are to be related. I am convinced more than ever that apocalyptic must resist the attempt to make sense of God’s relation to the world by way of a metaphysical schema.

  3. November 6, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    This quite helpfully identifies several issues I have with this ‘debate’. Here’s two. First, the polemic and counter-polemic presumes the existence of two, and only two poles: apocalyptic on one side and Radical Orthodoxy on the other. Postliberals and Augustinian Mennonites, to pick two possibilities, are reduced to mere variations.

    Second, most of the tradition is derided as the property of conservatism. Even figures like St. Chrysostom and St. Francis are, no doubt, too contaminated by Platonism to represent a way forward. This leads to an implicit overdose of Protestantism that is not helpful.

  4. November 7, 2010 at 1:48 am

    Michael, I’m curious about a couple aspects of your rather muddled and confused comment. First of all what’s with the scare quotes around “debate”? Are you implying that, in fact, there is no such debate? Or just clumsily trying to be dismissive as it appears?

    Second, how can you imagine that the presence of a debate between two positions somehow “presumes the existence of two, and only two poles”? A debate doesn’t exclude the possibility of other positions existing, how could it? Its simply, you know, an argument between the views that the people arguing happen to hold. If you’re upset that some view (with which I assume you want do identify yourself) isn’t part of the argument, then by all means chime in and show how your own unique and utterly distinct perspective sheds new light on the salient issues.

    Thirdly, I don’t know where anyone has conflated postliberalism and RO in any of these discussions, at least not from our side. Rather it is our critics that seem to want to present them as some sort of unified front. As to your second “possibility”, Augustinian Mennonitism, you really can’t blame us for not addressing a position that, you know, doesn’t actually exist in any meaningful way. That is to say, there is no ecclesial body or theological school of thought consisting of “Augustinian Mennonites” in existence with whom anyone could dialogue. I assume what you intend by your term is some sort of free church position that also wants to be Augustinian on certain doctrinal themes. Now, I would not want to dismiss such a position out of hand, but in order for us to include its unique and singular perspective in our discussion we’d have to have some idea of what it actually is, since, as far as I can tell it is simply your own conceptual creation rather than some actual live option that is “out there” and being ignored.

    Finally, your last sentences give us far too much credit. We haven’t got around to deriding “most of the tradition” by any means. Please give us time. Also I don’t know how anyone could ascribe Platonism to St. Francis and his followers. As far as I’ve heard, according to the righteous defenders of “the tradition”, the problem with the Franciscans is precisely that they reject the platonic metaphysics of participation and end up nominalists (=modernism=nihilism).

    So if anything we are probably guilty of identifying too closely and unhealthily with St. Francis and his irresponsible radicalism.

  5. myles
    November 7, 2010 at 8:35 am

    I echo Michael’s second concern: to paraphrase someone I can’t think of, “if the church has failed, there is no church to retrieve”. What of the doctrine of the communion of the saints, where those who belong to this tradition stand with us in the present, such that the ‘event’ of the church is never without its witnesses from other days?

  6. dbarber
    November 7, 2010 at 9:40 am

    If it means anything, I, for one, have found “apocalyptic theology” too stable.

  7. November 7, 2010 at 11:10 am

    Halden,

    I’m referring to Gerald Schlabach and Travis Kroeker, for example. As for Scotus, you’ve restated your argument in the terms you oppose, which illustrates the recurring problem of the excluded middle. I don’t believe nominalism & modernity are all Scotus’ fault. I mean just look at him! He’s obviously not a Nietzschean. :)

    Myles,

    Indeed. We might also ask how to talk about sharing (and filling up what is lacking!) in Christ’s sufferings, without which the lives of so many saints are completely unintelligible. Mother Teresa, anyone?

  8. November 7, 2010 at 11:39 am

    One thing that I have always struggled with understanding about apocalyptic theology (and I’ll say up front that my theological interests are elsewhere so it’s not as if I’ve made extensive attempts at coming to an understanding) is how one actually does “theology” in a register like this.

    It’s not apocalyptic that I have a problem with. While this may be a bit too broad of a pronouncement, I take it that any true Christian must embrace apocalypticism, insofar as the Word has become flesh, a pilgrimage towards the new creation is present, etc. But saying this doesn’t begin to affirm (and needn’t, I don’t think) a particular way of doing theology. And I wonder how objective a basis apocalypse really provides for reasoned inquiry of the sort that theology claims to perform.

    This is sort of like an accusation of “instability”, I suppose, but I wouldn’t want it to be lumped with the apocalyptic-metaphysics debate that Ry is discussing here. In that sense I’m one of the other voices that Halden speaks of in comment #4. I think that any focus on apocalypse is and should be unstable. What I doubt is whether theology should be founded on that sort of basis.

    I take theology to be a scholarly activity of some sort, and in that sense any apocalyptic reflection that shares a bit of Kierkegaardian influence might also share a Kierkegaardian critique of scholars… right? That’s all I’m really saying. If one is to work from apocalyptic, why would one want to be doing the theological task in the first place? In Barth I think the situation gets muddied a bit. As I read Barth’s comments tying theology closely with the practice of prayer, or with preaching, I think that he can really be in danger of doing both theology and prayer/preaching a disservice by attempting to pull them too closely together. Let preaching be truly apocalyptic by not unduly weighing it down with presumptions of theological discipline! And let theology be truly humble and remain chastened by not unduly weighing it down with presumptions about its role in the apocalyptic work of the Kingdom!

    I know that sounds horrible, but it should be read in light of the fact that I take theology to be a rather secondary and late addition to the life and work of the Church. Learned commentary on scripture or on our beliefs isn’t the front lines of our missionary endeavors… it should always lag behind and nitpick over various intellectual problems with which most Christians really shouldn’t have much concern. It should be pretty stable, that is… but not out of a commitment to building some strong foundation for an intellectually harmonious Christendom. Moreso because the tools and methods of any scholarly discipline like theology don’t strike me as very well equipped to work with apocalypses adequately (as a foundation, that is. Certainly I’m not saying that theologians simply shouldn’t engage with things and events that could be categorized as “apocalyptic”). I appreciate the Kierkegaardian critique of scholars and I take it seriously, and for that reason I want as much as possible to keep scholarship as restricted as possible. For that reason, “apocalyptic theology” sounds dangerously liable to a hijacking of our apocalyptic faith by intellectualist concerns.

    All of this depends very much on how one defines the theological task, of course, and you simply may call something “theological” that I don’t (and vice versa). Insofar as theologians who define their task quite differently share space in academic departments, though, at least voicing this sort of difference in conception seems important in order to avoid talking past one another.

  9. November 7, 2010 at 11:39 am

    Myles, I’m quite confused by your paraphrase of whoever that is. I don’t know what it would possibly mean to say that acknowledging the church’s failure somehow eliminates the church’s reality unless we are expecting the church to simply be and do what the gospel says Christ does and is. For my part I don’t see how this can even be a question. It is simply a fact that the church (like Israel before her) has and continues to fail and fail egregiously. This would only be a theological problem if we expected the church to be or do something more than what, in Christ, the church in fact is.

    As to the doctrine of the communion of saints, again I don’t see where the problem is. Perhaps the better question would be What do we expect the doctrine of the communion of saints to do theologically? What are we looking for from it? To me the doctrine of the communion of saints indicates that in Christ those who were enemies are now reconciled to one another. In his crucifixion and resurrection the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile and any other class of people has been broken down, and, precisely in the event of Christ’s own action for us and our salvation, we find ourselves given to each other as his witnesses. I absolutely believe this includes all those who have gone before us and borne witness to the Gospel. How could it not? However, as Yoder said: “The peculiarity of the term ‘tradition’ is that it points to that criterion beyond itself, to which it claims to be a witness. We are therefore doing no violence to the claim of tradition when we test it by its fidelity to that origin. A witness is not being dishonored when we test his fidelity as an interpreter of the events to which he testifies. That is his dignity as witness; he wants to be tested for that.” (The Priestly Kingdom, 77-78)

    In the Yoderian sense here, I would say that only a position such as the one we are articulating can really offer a doctrine of tradition and the communion of saints that is faithful to the character of Christian existence as witness. If the communion of saints or the church’s tradition must function for us as a bulwark of impeccability then we have lost their true character as witnesses to Christ who cry out to be judged by him and his call. It seems to me that failure to understand the communion of saints in terms of testable witnesses is to fall into a fetishization of the worst sort, in which we expect the saints to do the work of Christ, rather than to simply proclaim him.

  10. November 7, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Michael, again, you’d have to actually show some work if you want to present “Augustinian Mennonitism” as some sort of unique snowflake that changes everything. It may interest you to know that Ry studied closely with Schlabach and all of us are thoroughly aware of his work. Indeed, I can’t imagine a better target for Ry’s post (the whole stability thing is at the center of Schlabach’s book and Ry gets at exactly the sort of fears that undergird that project).

    So again, there is in no sense an “excluded middle” here, at least no such actual “middle” has presented itself in any meaningful way and you haven’t helped me see one so far.

    Also, do you actually know what “the exculded middle” means? The fact that two people or groups with their own perspectives are having an argument doesn’t “exclude” anyone. No one has ever said that there are only two possible theological views that people may take in this big crazy world of ours. We’re just responding to some arguments that are actually out there and have been live discussions. Why you get all bitchy about how we haven’t responded to positions that haven’t articulated themselves and are basically the creation of your own imagination is beyond me.

    Finally, if you didn’t understand my post, I was not saying that St. Francis or Scotus caused nihilism. It is our critics that want to argue such points. I was just pointing out how your misguided hyperbole about how we somehow ignore the figures in the tradition inadvertently betrayed a rather striking lack of knowledge on your part about the role St Francis and the Franciscans play in these discussions.

    Honestly, based on your comments I can’t help wondering if you may have a lot of reading to do.

  11. November 7, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Michael,

    I mentioned Radical Orthodoxy only because our two most vocal critics (D. Stephen Long and James K.A. Smith) have published work under that banner and continue to approach theology through this lens. D. Stephen Long, in particular, advocates a variation of the analogia entis and wants to maintain a neo-platonic Christian metaphysics. I am not sure if James K.A. Smith would share Long’s metaphysics, but it seems that he will be forced to move in this direction. I had these two thinkers in mind when I wrote this post because they have been the most vocally opposed to the “Kingdom-World-Church” theses and, I might add, they were extremely critical of Nate’s book.

    As far as the “excluded middle” goes, Halden has responded well I think. We realize that there are a wide diversity of opinions in theology and a variety of different perspectives that would oppose what we’re doing. Obviously it is not just “Radical Orthodoxy,” whatever that might even mean. We have had some critics who wouldn’t follow Long or Smith on a whole host of issues so I don’t mean to paint every view expressed with this broad brush. Admittedly this post isn’t very nuanced and I don’t mean to dismiss the many challenging and good critiques that we have received over the past five months or so from a variety of perspectives. But it’s a blogpost and I was addressing a particular line of reasoning that I’ve noticed in some of our more ‘radically orthodox’ inclined critics.

  12. November 9, 2010 at 1:12 am

    Ry,

    I appreciate your response, and apologize for my rather cryptic and inflammatory comments. Preparing for my campus visits and listening to a week of pro-military jingoism in Canada has been rather fraying. But I did enjoy Nate’s book, and I do find it quite helpful to have some serious pushback to RO’s overly dominant (and domineering) project. One of the problems with their influence is that I’ve seen (too) many discussions turn into debates over the analogia entis, as if it were the one true foci of all theological work. And of course you share this frustration, as evidenced by your post.

    To restate my other question as I should have from the start: from your perspective, how do you appropriate the tradition? Even leaving aside RO’s quixotic quest for the one true understanding of being, many voices are seriously Platonic, including Chrysostom and Scotus. (Scotus was still a moderate realist, and much more Platonic than, say, Ockham. The analogia entis ain’t everything.) This shouldn’t mean a neo-Platonic hierarchy of being and doctrine of participation is the solution to all our problems; if it is, I’m pretty sure the Incarnation would have been unnecessary. At the same time, there must be some positive development of doctrine to get us to this point. One of the problems with RO is that it suggests the existence of a tiny faithful remnant in modernity, but to posit a tiny faithful remnant in the Middle Ages reproduces the same basic problem. Again, I’m not suggesting you have or are doing so; I’m just curious.

  13. November 17, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Halden wrote: “Indeed, I can’t imagine a better target for Ry’s post (the whole stability thing is at the center of Schlabach’s book and Ry gets at exactly the sort of fears that undergird that project).”

    So are you in fact targeting Schlabach’s “whole stability thing” Ry?

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