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Hope and Apocalypse

March 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Hope is that act whereby a person becomes aware of the distance of the Kingdom, and it clings to apocalyptic thinking. If the Kingdom is there, within easy reach, if the Kingdom is quite naturally within us, there is no need for hope. The latter is the measure of our distance from the Kingdom. Certainly the saying which attests that the Kingdom is in our midst is truthful, but it is truthful as a saying of hope. It is not the report of an observable, measurable reality, complete with tangible consequences. It is an affirmation of a counter-reality. Humanly speaking, it is not true that the Kingdom of God is present. . . . Hope allows us to catch a glimpse of the invisible signs of the Kingdom actually at work, but which are visible only to hope. Only for hope   are they signs and carriers of the future. . . .

Like it or not, if we have the idea that the world develops through the wonderful works of man, that it goes from progress to progress in that way toward the Kingdom of God (and, at best, only by political and social revolutions!), that there is an unbroken continuity between this world and the Kingdom, that the way is prepared for the latter through political, technological, and scientific action, then one is dealing with a motionless object-God, a god who is no longer a stopgap, but a porcelain vase set aside in a corner: ‘Wait for us. We’ll take care of it.’

The Apocalypse is tied to the thought of a God who intervenes in history, who makes his own decisions and acts as sovereign, creating the world he wants through his almighty Word, whose fiery approach melts mountains and causes man and his works to collapse. It is to take the living God seriously. Now hope is that work which incites this God to come and reveal himself, no longer in his discreetness, weakness, and humiliation, but also in his glory. If one doesn’t hope in the glory of God, of which the Apocalypse is a translation, there is no hope. There is only human progress and the hatred of those who obstruct it.

Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment, trans. C. Edward Hopkin (New York: Seabury Press: 1973) 207-209.

 

Natural theology FAIL

January 15, 2011 19 comments

According to this article, redemption looks like the “boyish grin” of Brett Favre on a “good night,” simultaneously smells like the “oaky tease” of a Napa Chardonnay and the “outside smell” of the family dog in November, and tastes like the hoppy bitterness of an IPA and free range “Turkeyness.”

So, in other words, redemption is akin to shit middle-class white folks like to do in Grand Rapids, MI?

For advent

December 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Advent should admonish us to discover
in each brother or sister that we greet,
in each friend whose hand we shake,
in each beggar who asks for bread,
in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union,
in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves,
the face of Christ.
Then it would not be possible to rob them,
to cheat them,
to deny them their rights.
They are Christ,
and whatever is done to them
Christ will take as done to himself.
This is what Advent is:
Christ living among us

Oscar Romero December 3, 1978.

Categories: Uncategorized

For and Against Dula Against Schlabach

November 17, 2010 1 comment

A guest post by Gerald Schlabach

A response to Peter Dula’s critique of Unlearning Protestantism

in “For and Against Hauerwas Against Mennonites” (Mennonite Quarterly Review July 2010)

On behalf of the ACRS Reading Group in Harrisonburg, Ray Gingerich has asked me to respond to Peter Dula’s “trenchant” and “poignant” critique of me in a recent MQR article.  Let me first say, however, that I took Peter’s critique as such a friendly one that I did not myself think of it as “trenchant,” though his analysis is as usual exceptionally smart and illuminating.   I received it as the kind of critique that a scholar can and should welcome readily.  I have been subject to critiques from other scholars on other matters that I found difficult and painful because they seemed unfair – and unfair because they seemed not to have first endeavored to engage my arguments on their own terms before carrying debate forward.  Peter’s critique was one I welcomed, precisely because he summarized me fairly and knowledgeably, so that I could be confident we would be differing as scholars ought – pushing the field forward instead of endlessly backtracking to clarify what had been misunderstood and talked past.  I had actually asked Peter to read my book in manuscript form, because he seemed to be such an ideal reader – a student of Hauerwas, familiar with virtue ethics, etc., yet with an especially acute independence of mind, and with a Barthian bent that I anticipated would offer the best rival position to my own.  Peter didn’t get a chance to comment pre-publication because he had the funny idea that he should practice stability by getting married and doing his job at Eastern Mennonite well, rather than talking about stability.   Good for him.  This is not to say that I think Peter gets me altogether right.  But even where I will want to push back, Peter has got me thinking and examining my own assumptions and motivations in a way that is salutary.

Peter’s most pointed critique (or at least the one that may penetrate to core assumptions) is based on his inferring or perhaps deconstructing my motives – my “anxiety-ridden” fear that the church is failing to survive the corrosions of modernity and individualism.   I would prefer that my argument did not stand or fall on evidence of my motives, but Peter sets up his own critique in such a way that I am going to have to engage in retrospective self-analysis.  After all, his critique depends heavily on him being right when he says:

The central animating force behind the ecclesiology in Schlabach’s book is a deep-seated anxiety, even fear, about the future of the church. Moreover, the background is a particular communitarian diagnosis of modernity, without which the anxiety dissipates. That is, the argument depends almost entirely on Schlabach (actually, Alasdair MacIntyre) being right about our cultural condition and upon our sharing his anxiety in light of that condition.  (388)

Legitimately, Peter finds ample evidence in my apparent dependence on MacIntyre, and my use of a quote from Hauerwas that was just too good to use only once, about the task of Protestants who now need to figure out how to “survive” the modern world they helped create.  I will freely admit that Peter has textual evidence to run with this, and that he has prompted me to reflect deeply and self-critically about whether I am in fact fearful and preoccupied with survival to the point that I am somehow failing to trust God for the future of the church.  Maybe.  I will welcome a report from your group as to whether others read me this way, and I am sure I will keep thinking about this possibility in any case.  But at this point, I really don’t think so, and want to explain why I think there are other motives and influences at work in my book.

First, about MacIntyre:   I certainly have gotten a lot of intellectual help from him and describe myself as MacIntyrian with regard to the method of tradition-based inquiry, virtue ethics, and the priority of inquiry into “the good.”   But what I think I owe MacIntyre is that he helped me consolidate influences that were important to me well before I had even heard of him.   MacIntyre helped me understood what I was already appropriating from Thomas Kuhn, while avoiding the moral relativism for which others have found comfort in Kuhn.  He helped me to go deeper into the virtue ethics to which Hauerwas had introduced me.   And he helped me to link the sociological insights of Robert Bellah et al. with the philosophical disciplines that I had to learn as a doctoral student in Christian ethics.  But – and here’s the catch – all of those were already resonating with me because in my formation I was (and no doubt remain, even as a Catholic) so much of an Amish Mennonite, an identity in which the task of “sustaining Christian community” is nearly constitutive.

MacIntyre’s diagnosis of cultural “fragmentation,” which he illustrated with the famous thought experiment that opens After Virtue, has thus seemed interesting to me, and well-taken if strictly applied to the state of moral philosophy, but only that.  To me as a Mennonite and then a Mennonite Catholic who has no particular illusions about some prior supposedly intact state of Western civilization, MacIntyre’s preoccupations have never really been mine.  Insofar as they have resonated, it is because my Amish Mennonite upbringing (or more precisely, the legacy of my father’s Amish Mennonite upbringing) gave me a deep sense of solidarity with traditional cultures that I came to know over the years – the Maya in particular, but villages and neighborhoods in Latin America generally, as well as other traditional cultures I learned about in other continents through MCC, though from a distance.   To be sure, Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart did resonate as a diagnosis of the cultural state of North America, and this bears a family resemblance to MacIntyre’s cultural diagnosis.   But what seemed important to me even there was not its own investment in the practices of some prior golden age of American society.  Rather, what seemed important was the way it might help us understand the corrosion of Christian community itself, and the conditions needed to sustain “thick” communal practices.

Now, all of this could still leave me motivated by inordinate fear that modernity is corroding the conditions for sustaining Christian community, and leave Peter saying that he rests his case.  In other words, I might still be tending to neglect or even betray the cruciform shape of the Christian faith by worrying unduly about “survival.”  And as I say, Peter will keep me reflecting upon this possibility for a long time.  I have to take his reading seriously.  After all, I am quite on the record, in writings about “Abrahamic community” spread over nearly two decades, for insisting that there is a necessary if paradoxical tension to all faithful Christian community – namely that the originality of Abrahamic and then Christian community is that it actually loses its identity by protecting it with any kind of siege mentality, and that it preserves its identity only by placing that identity at risk again and again in such service as offers itself as a blessing to all the families of the earth (see http://personal.stthomas.edu/gwschlabach/docs/2v1k.htm).   Though I first wrote of this as a “paradigm” for Mennonite social ethics, it is nothing I have needed to lay aside in becoming a Catholic, for it seems to me that Vatican II encodes much the same pattern by speaking of the church as the “sacrament of the world’s salvation,” and the “sacrament of human unity.”   In any case, for me to neglect or betray this cruciform, Abrahamic, pattern of community life would not only constitute a scholarly inconsistency, but would constitute a cause for repentance – if indeed it is the case that anxiety, fear, and a preoccupation with survival are what have driven my project.  But humbly and with openness to fraternal correction, here’s why I don’t yet feel a need to repent:

For one thing, it seems obvious to me that martyrdom cannot emerge from nowhere.  Yes, individual Christians and indeed entire Christian communities can be called to lay down their lives for the sake of the gospel.  No, survival can never be a supreme value within faithful Christianity.   But martyrs are able to be martyrs because they have been formed with a certain kind of Christlike character.  And that formation in turn depends on certain qualities of communal life, which must exist through time, with enough “continuity” to form its members.   Everything I say in the opening pages of chapter two about the creative paradox inherent in a “tradition of dissent,” which attracted Hauerwas to Mennonites, could be argued in parallel fashion about the kind of continuing tradition that is paradoxically needed to produce Christians who feel no obsessive need to survive.   Jesus called out a community of disciples who would be willing to die for the sake of the gospel, but he didn’t call them to immediately be stillborn as a community.  Christian communities have to live long enough and sustainably enough to give up their lives freely, or else they are purely victims.   Even Jesus, by insisting on what New Testament scholars call the “messianic secret,” seems to have taken pains that neither he nor his movement die prematurely.   Already in Nazareth, following his “inaugural” proclamation in Luke 4, he deliberately eluded a premature execution through stoning, for example.

For another thing, I have written about the “practices of stability” above all because I think they are right.   If readers like Peter must do a deconstructive genealogy of ideas on me, I would – to repeat – at least ask them to pay attention to my Amish Mennonite roots.   (Quick story:  Since my father, Theron Schlabach, was visiting for a week when the task of doing a final copy edit fell upon me in the middle of a semester, I asked him, as an experienced editor, to do that task for me.  When he gave me back the manuscript, there was a little note in the corner of the cover sheet:  “Amish ordnung writ large?”)  Whatever the ironies of my having now become Catholic – which I try to face forthrightly in my book’s introduction –  and however much John Yoder has been my preeminent Mennonite influence, I always considered Harold Bender and Guy Hershberger to be the greater role models for an ecclesial intellectual.  Why?  The senior seminar paper I did as a history major at Goshen College took me back past their writings alone, to the 1920s, when both made very deliberate decisions to hang in there with the church, at a time when many of their peers in the Young People’s Movement were peeling off impatiently.   (Later, Yoder and other Concern Group members ultimately stuck with the church too, as I discuss in chapter two, but arguably in spite of themselves or at least in spite of their ecclesiology; and of course Yoder’s relationship to the flesh-and-blood Mennonite church was at best uneasy for decades.)  So as Hauerwas’s virtue ethics would predict, the most important theological data has come to me in the form of mentors and role models – lives that embody the good.  Later of course I encountered Catholic models, some of whom I tell about in my introduction and others of whom I narrate in chapter 5.  I do not believe it is anxiety that has produced this book, therefore, but something far more positive: the attractiveness of these lives.  Of course my book goes on to use as many analyses and devices and tacks as I can think of to get readers to notice what is inherently a self-effacing “ordinary” virtue.  But my most important motive is the conviction:  Stability is the right way to be a Christian; stability is the right way to participate in Christian community.

Postscript no. 1:  For those who have not read my introduction and might wonder, let me add that I became a Catholic not to depart unstably from the Mennonite community, as it were, but because all of this also required me to search for fresh models by which distinctive traditions and communities within the Church catholic can remain true to their vocations and charisms while remaining in or seeking communion with large wholes.

Postscript no. 2:  I guess am willing to accept one of Peter’s critiques – namely, that for someone so apparently influenced by Hauerwas, I do surprisingly little actual theology in my book.  Looking back, perhaps Peter is right.   If I have a lame defense it is this:  Peter’s critique may be a little like that of certain evangelicals who want an altar call at every church service, or want every Christian trade book to work “the plan of salvation” in somewhere.  A Mennonite (and for that matter a Methodist or a Catholic) replies:  But after someone gets saved, what does a Christian do next?  Analogously:  my book is not so much an ecclesiology or theology of the church as it is about the “then what?” of church, the “what then?” of Christian community.   Perhaps because I was at pains that the book not come across as a Catholic apologetic, I may have tried rhetorically to allow any reader’s ecclesiology to serve as a starting point, so long as he or she takes the church seriously enough to care about “sustaining Christian community.”  In my own mind, my earlier work on Abrahamic community, filled out by key ecclesiological developments at Vatican II, were all assumed.   But sure, I probably shouldn’t have assumed.

Gerald W. Schlabach

19 September 2010

The problem with ‘apocalyptic theology’

November 6, 2010 13 comments

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.

 

Barth on sacralization

September 18, 2010 Leave a comment

We are thinking of what can and does always and everywhere happen in a hundred different forms; of the slipping of the community into the sacralisation in which it not only cuts itself off from its own origin and goal and loses its secret by trying to reveal it in itself, but also separates itself for its own pleasure from poor, sinful, erring humanity bleeding from a thousand wounds, trying to impose itself where it owes its witness, and denying and suppressing its witness by witnessing only to itself. Sacralisation means the transmutation of the lordship of Jesus Christ into the vanity of a Christianity which vaunts itself in His name but in reality is enamored only of itself and its traditions, confessions and institutions. Sacralisation means the suppression of the Gospel by a pseudo-sacred law erected and proclaimed on the supposed basis of the Gospel. Sacralisation means the setting up of an idol which is dead like all other images of human fabrication; which cannot hear or speak or illuminate or help or heal; in which the man who has discovered and created it cannot in the last resort admire or worship anyone or anything but himself.

(Karl Barth, CD IV.2, 670)

Categories: Karl Barth, Quotes

God has not ever, no not ever

September 11, 2010 1 comment

I realize that my theological limitations and my close identity with the social conditions of black people could blind me to the truth of the gospel. And maybe our white theologians are right when they insist that I have overlooked the universal significance of Jesus’ message. But I contend that there is no universalism that is not particular. Indeed their insistence upon the universal note of the gospel arises out of their own particular political and social interests. As long as they can be sure the gospel is for everybody, ignoring that God liberated a particular people from Egypt, came in a particular man called Jesus, and for the particular purpose of liberating the oppressed, then they can continue to talk in theological abstractions, failing to recognize that such talk is not the gospel unless it is related to the concrete freedom of the little ones. My point is that God came, and continues to come, to those who are poor and helpless, for the purpose of setting them free. And since the people of color are his elected poor in America, any interpretation of God that ignores black oppression cannot be Christian theology. The ‘blackness of Christ,’ therefore, is not simply a statement about skin color, but rather, the transcendent affirmation that God has not ever, no not ever, left the oppressed alone in struggle. He was with them in Pharaoh’s Egypt, is with them in America, Africa, and Latin America, and will come in the end of time to consummate fully their human freedom.

James Cone, God of the Oppressed, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997) 126.

The apostolic church

June 25, 2010 6 comments

As their distinctive title “apostle” shows us, they were sent out to preach the gospel to the world, a light which had been kindled to give light to all that are in the house (Mt. 5:15)–nothing more. The character given to them is not great or significant in itself. Not even in the highest conceivable sense is it a matter of their own good or ill, of their own honor, or even of the self-reposing structural importance and dignity of the work which they have to accomplish in this character. Their being and their work both point beyond themselves. Their field is the world, and they are only sowers who pass over it. They renounce any self-grounded or self-reposing rightness or importance of their distinctive being and activity. It is the special direction in which they look, to the One who has made them His and whom they have recognized as theirs, which forces them to make this renunciation. It cannot be otherwise than that even in this renunciation they should be a normative pattern to the community gathered by their ministry. As an apostolic church the church can never in any respect be an end in itself, but following the existence of the apostles, it exists only as it exercises the ministry of a herald. . . . As Christ’s community it points beyond itself. At bottom it can never consider its own security, let alone its appearance. As Christ’s community it is always free from itself. In its deepest and most proper tendency it is not churchly, but worldly–the church with open doors and great windows, behind which it does better not to close itself in upon itself again by putting in pious stained-glass windows. It is holy in its openness to the street and even the alley, in its turning to the profanity of human life–the holiness which, according to Rom. 12:5, does not scorn to rejoice with them that do rejoice and to weep with them that weep. Its mission is not additional to its being. It is, as it is sent and active in its mission. It builds up itself for the sake of its mission and in relation to it. It does it seriously and actively as it is aware of its mission and in the freedom from itself which this gives (Barth, CD IV, 724-725).

Categories: Karl Barth, Quotes

Kingdom-World-Church: Some Provisional Theses

June 8, 2010 Comments off

by Nathan R. Kerr, Ry O. Siggelkow, and Halden Doerge

In a recent conversation on this blog regarding an important review, by Ry Siggelkow, I (Nate Kerr) suggested in the comments that to think rightly what it means to say that “mission makes the church,” that mission as lived proclamation of and witness to Christ’s Lordship is indeed constitutive of the church’s existence in the world, we will need to engage in a thoroughgoing reconsideration of the church’s relation to the world in light of the apocalyptic inbreaking of the Kingdom of God that happens in the historicity of Jesus Christ. In the course of those comments I offered to write a “guest post” in which I gave some indication of what I think those reconsiderations might entail. This is that post—which has come together with more than just a little help from my friends, Halden and Ry. Together we offer these reflections in hope that they may contribute to the task of theology in the service of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We should like to begin these brief reflections with an oft-quoted passage from the conclusion of John Howard Yoder’s Body Politics:

The believing body is the image that the new world—which in light of the ascension and Pentecost is on the way—casts ahead of itself. The believing body of Christ is the world on the way to its renewal; the church is the part of the world that confesses the renewal to which all the world is called. (Yoder, Body Politics, 78)

This passage and others like it from Yoder’s oeuvre have been the impetus for a number of contemporary modes of “ecclesiocentric” construals of the kingdom of God in relation to the world. The church’s missionary thinking, so the argument goes, is ecclesiocentric just to the extent that the church ontologically precedes the world and, ultimately, supercedes the world with respect to the kingdom’s eschatological fulfillment. As the late twentieth-century theologian and missiologist J.C. Hoekendijk has argued, however, such “church-centric missionary thinking” is itself a false start. For from within such ecclesiocentric thinking, Hoekendijk claims, the call to mission, or evangelism—that is, the call to proclaim and to embody “the gospel”—often turns out to be “little else than a call to restore ‘Christendom,’ the ‘Corpus Christianum,’ as a solid, well-integrated cultural complex, directed and dominated by the Church” (Hoekendijk, Church Inside Out, 15). That is to say, the church aligns itself with the Kingdom and against the world by way of the production of its own alternative, habitable culture. As John Flett has convincingly argued, mission thereby becomes tied inextricably to the extension of this “culture”; this culture, this particular way of life, just is the gospel that is proclaimed, and the church’s missionary relation to the world cannot but be a function of its own culture—gospel proclamation turns out to be a matter of the church’s propagation of its own way of life, and evangelism a mode of integrating the world into this particular habitable culture.[1] Thus, on such an ecclesiocentric reading of the Church-world relationship, the church is most missionary precisely at that point at which the church is most intentionally “self-regarding” (Hauerwas). And herein lies the reason why we must insist upon resisting such an understanding of the church as ontologically “prior” to the world as such, in relation to the kingdom: viz., it presents us with not only an ecclesiologically but missiologically idealist logic—such an intentionally self-regarding conception of mission requires the construction of another (“the world”) as productive and reflective of its own identity.

The problem with such an ecclesio-concentric understanding of the church’s relation to the Kingdom and the world, says Hoekendijk, is that it misconstrues the basic Scriptural sense in which the kingdom of God is first and foremost the kingdom for the world. The kingdom is oriented from beginning to end towards the oikoumene—the whole world.

For this oikoumene the Kingdom is destined; world (kosmos/oikoumene) and Kingdom are correlated to each other; the world is conceived as a unity, the scene of God’s great acts: it is the world which has been reconciled (II Cor. 5:19), the world which God loves (John 3:16) and which he has overcome in his love (John (16:33); the world is the field in which the seeds of the Kingdom are sown (Matt. 13:38)—the world is consequently the scene for the proclamation of the Kingdom. (Hoekendijk, Church Inside Out, 41)

In short: “Kingdom and world belong together.” The order of God’s economy is thus “God-World-Church, not God-Church-World” (71). This is the order of God’s own missionary existence in Christ. And by participation in this missionary existence of God, we must give new expression to the church’s own missionary existence: the order of this existence must be that of Kingdom-World-Church, not Kingdom-Church-World.

What we should like to propose, then, is that the quote from Yoder with which we began these reflections should be read through the perspective of this alternative Kingdom-World-Church order. Precisely as such, we might better come to understand the implications of Yoder’s insight that mission has to do with coming to “see the church in relationship to the world rather than defining ecclesial existence ‘by definition’ or ‘as such’” (Yoder, Royal Priesthood, 78). The church only exists as “living from and toward the promise of the whole world’s salvation.” (Yoder, Priestly Kingdom, 12).

As such, the church thereby exists as one dimension of a thoroughgoing apocalyptic realism. That is to say, the church exists insofar as it is constituted by the manner in which, in the apocalypse of Jesus Christ, “the reality of God has entered into the reality of this world,” proving victorious over the fallen powers of this world for the sake of this world’s salvation (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 54). What really matters, then, for the church, is its mode of participation “in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today” (55).[2] And that reality is without reserve that of the apocalyptic rectification of all things to God in Christ. That event of apocalyptic rectification is constitutive of reality itself; and the event of the church takes place firmly within that reality of the reconciled world “that is real only through the reality of God” disclosed in Jesus Christ (54).[3] The church thus exists as an ergon Kyriou (a work of the Lord), which means to say that the church exists for the sake of the unique and special share that it is given in the cosmic meaning of the sovereignty of this world’s living Lord. But precisely as such the church does exist, and its existence is precisely that of a special function and task. As to the nature of that special existence, function, and task, we should like to conclude these reflections. We shall do so by putting forward some provisional theses on the existence, nature, and task of the church. There could be more, of course, and these could be articulated with more depth and precision. But these are, after all, mere theses—and provisional at that.

Thesis 1: The church is an event within the event of this world’s apocalyptic transfiguration. This is a midrash on Robert Jenson’s insight that “the church is neither a realization of the new age nor an item of the old age. She is precisely an event within the event of the new age’s advent” (Jenson, Systematic Theology, 2:171). The church is an apocalyptic event just to the extent that she lives from the Ascension and Pentecost, and so towards the second advent of Jesus Christ. Thus the church can never fail to see itself as inhabiting this apocalyptic space. Or rather, the church’s whole mode of being is “timed” by God’s own apocalyptic act of invading the world, transforming it, and redeeming it. As such the church, in every aspect of its life, abides at the intersection of the old age and the age to come. The church lives in saecula saeculorum precisely and only at this indissoluble interstice of God’s redemptive and life-giving invasion of the world of sin, suffering, and death.

Thesis 2: The church’s primary task is apostolic. The church exists as a function of Christ’s own singular apostolicity; that is, its existence is a matter of its participation in Christ as the “sent one” (Heb 3:1). “The church has no other existence than in actu Christi, that is, in actu Apostoli” (Hoekendijk). The church thereby exists to serve the ministerium Verbi incarnati (Barth)the church’s share in the apostolicity of Christ consists in its being sent out by the power of the Spirit to proclaim the euangelion of Jesus Christ to the world. In this sense, the church’s “priority” with regards to the world is that of a distinctively apostolic precedence.

Thesis 3: The euangelion of Jesus Christ, as Yoder puts it, is “not a religious or a personal term at all, but a secular one: ‘good news.’” As heralds and witnesses to this gospel the church’s visibility is thus “not a cultic or ritual separation, but rather a nonconformed quality of (“secular”) involvement in the life of the world” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 39). The apostolic mission of the church is secular because God’s apocalyptic act in Jesus Christ abolishes religion. The proper starting point for Christian reflection lies not with the nostalgic lament that “once there was no secular” (Milbank), but in the genuinely liberative good news that in Christ “there is no longer religion.” From the standpoint of God’s apocalyptic act in Christ religion is “unbelief” (Barth). Religion is “the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human manufacture.”[4] The apocalyptic inbreaking of God in Christ does not affirm the “world-in-itself,” but rather ruptures and suspends the religious distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane” (and between “church” and “world,” as such). The new antinomy created in the coming of Christ is not between the “secular” and the “religious” but between apocalypse and religion. It is God who apocalyptically comes to the world in the sending of his Son and his Spirit to liberate the church, and indeed, the world, from enslavement to religion. And so Paul can confidently proclaim: “It was to bring us into the realm of freedom that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1).[5]

Thesis 4: Christian worship does not lie in a realm outside of religion. To seek a direct correspondence between leitourgia (“the work of the people”) and divine action is to forget that worship itself is a “perpetual factory of idols” (Calvin). Furthermore, such easy correspondence risks fetishizing and instrumentalizing worship. The problem is structural and runs deep; in truth, the very discipline of “ecclesiology” is prone to idolatrous self-aggrandizement. Thus the critique of religio strikes at the very heart of Christian worship.[6] The occasion for sin occurs preeminently as leitourgia—the “work of the people” to self-justify, to strive to stand aright before God. Indeed, worship is the site marking our deepest estrangement from God. But this is not the final word! In Jesus Christ, God decisively wills to be God-for-us and so our idolatrous “work” becomes the site of our reconciliation with God. Reconciliation occurs not as exchange or production, but as a gratuitous event of grace. In this event the Spirit “takes up” our “work” to stand aright before God and transforms and transfigures our prideful attempts to “make a name for ourselves.” Our worship only becomes true praise, then, as our “work” loses track of itself under the great pressure of God’s own doxa. Such doxa happens as the event of God’s grace evokes gratitude “like the voice an echo.” Indeed, “Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightening” (Barth, CD IV/1, 41).

Thesis 5: Dispersion, or diaspora, names “the truly ecumenical reality of the church in this world” (Stringfellow). The church’s first ecumenical reality is to exist as a priest among the nations. Here mission and ecumenics are shown to be inseparable. True Christian unity is inseparable from the realization of the koinonia of the whole world with God that Jesus Christ has actualized. It is for this reason that the church cannot itself be considered a “home” or as constitutive of an alternatively “habitable world” (Hauerwas), for the Christian vocation is to be in the world, without reserve—that is, in the one whole world whose true reality is to be reconciled to God in the one whole Christ. It is as such that the church realizes the truth of its “catholicity”—the fullness of koinonia in the apocalypsis Iesou Christou.

Thesis 6: It is as Lord of all humanity that Christ is rightly to be understood as Head of his body, the church. The true body of Christ (corpus verum) is thus in reality all of humanity crucified and resurrected with Christ, and so reconciled to God in him (Aquinas; Barth). The church in via is thus “but a part of the larger Body of Christ” (Nicholas Healy).[7] So the church “is” the body of Christ as precisely and paradoxically what it “is not,” in itself. And so to make use of the image of soma Christou for the church is not ontologically to prescribe what the church is, but rather to remind the church continually that precisely as such it is not an end in itself.

Thesis 7: Jesus Christ alone is constitutive of the church’s sacramental existence. And Christ is so constitutive as in his priestly office he himself is sacramentally given for the whole world’s transfiguration in the singular event of his cross and resurrection. The ultimate reality (res) of which the church is a sign and for which she is given, then, is nothing other than the mystery of the world reconciled to God in Christ. “Sacrament” is thereby the language by which the church is given to communicate that for which she exists, as also the praxis whereby the church is plunged into the heart of the world and given to live for that reality—the coming kingdom of God—which she is not in-itself (McCabe). The sacraments are neither constitutive of an alternative social program—a polis, as such—nor are they constitutive of an alternative mode of production, or the expression of an alternative “technology of desire.” Rather, the sacraments are but ways by which Christ gives the church over to a dispossessed readiness for service (disponibilité) in the world. As such, the language and practice of the church are sacramental to the extent that they are utterly dependent upon the active presence, by the Spirit, of Christ’s ongoing reconciling and transfiguring presence in the world, which must continually be received afresh by the church from the world (as from without), as both judgment upon and justification of its existence. To affirm the church’s sacramental existence as such is thus to affirm that “the Church would be lost if it had no counterpart in the world” (Barth). Or, to put it another way, the language of sacrament is but the difficult work of learning “all that is involved in refusing to say that the dominion of God over his world is manifested here but not there” (MacKinnon).

Thesis 8: At the heart of the church’s existence is the claim that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). This world reconciled to God in Christ is the “new humanity” for which the church is sacramentally given. Our baptism is baptism into this new humanity precisely insofar as it is a baptism into the reality of this world’s transfiguration. It is this transfigured world, moreover, that provides the context for the practice of the Lord’s Supper. The eucharist, then, is not the ritual means of “inhabiting the church,” but rather the way by which the church inhabits the whole world (oikoumene) in grace, joy, and hospitality. It is the whole world reconciled to God in Christ to which we are opened in communion. And so it is the sacrament of baptism, as entrance into this world, that carries with it the imperative of open communion—without conditions! “With the gospel goes an open door” (Hoekendijk).[8]

Thesis 9: If the world reconciled to God in Christ is that for which the church exists, then the church is visible precisely at the point of such reconciliation—the church is visible as an event of this world’s apocalyptic transfiguration. This is a “very special visibility” indeed (Barth). For according to such visibility what one sees is a liberation of this world from the old age of sin and destruction and a liberation for participation in the new age inaugurated in Christ. The visibility of the church then occurs precisely in the reconciling and liberating event in which “we no longer regard one another from a human point of view” (2 Cor 5:16). The church is thus made to be a visible sign of reconciliation in the world precisely in the event of being conformed, given over by the Spirit, to God’s new creation brought about in Christ. But one only sees this transfiguration and liberation of the world by believing the church—that is, by way of faith in the gospel of the kingdom which she proclaims for the whole world.

Thesis 10: As such, the church is visible not by way of its ritual or cultic separation from the world, but by way of is kenotic solidarity with the world. Such solidarity with the world happens as a matter of concrete kenotic, cruciform obedience to the way of its Lord in this world. To be in such solidarity with this world is to struggle with the oppressive and sinful powers of this world by being given over to a mode of living and suffering and dying with the victims of these powers that embodies and proclaims in its very living and suffering and dying a hope and a joy and a celebration that these powers can neither produce nor control. Sent out in the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ the church stands in concrete solidarity with the oppressed peoples of this world.

Thesis 11: Such kenotic, cruciform solidarity in obedience to the way of the cross leaves no room for the church to be anything other than the “church of the poor.” The church’s kenotic solidarity with the world thus occurs as solidarity with the poor. As Jon Sobrino reminds us, “The mystery of the poor is prior to the ecclesial mission, and that mission is logically prior to an established church” (Sobrino, No Salvation Outside the Poor, 21). Or as Moltmann puts it, “It is not the Church that ‘has’ a mission, but the reverse; Christ’s mission creates itself a Church. The mission should not be understood from the perspective of the Church, but the other way round.”(Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, 10). With the Catholic bishops at Medellin, the church must reaffirm and exercise the “preferential option for the poor.” This “preferential option” is not simply one of many tasks of the church—it lies at the center and heart of its mission. In fact, it is its mission, because this is Christ’s mission.

Thesis 12: The “church of the poor” is in fact the one genuine “church for others” (Bonhoeffer), which lives, simply, by giving its property away. Such is the “ecclesieccentric” existence that the “Christeccentric” (R. Coles) relation of God’s kingdom to the World calls us to. It is precisely by way of such “ecclesi-eccentricity, moreover, that the church happens as not only sign but also a foretaste of that new creation, that kingdom to come. If the way of God’s eternal life as revealed in Christ just is the way of an eternally outgoing, self-giving love, then it will have to be thus in the church. Only as the church throws its life away in love for the other, only as the church loses itself completely in the world for which God’s kingdom has come, might the church be given to happen as an event within the event of that world’s transfiguration. Only as such, in precisely this kind of solidarity with the world, might the church be given—in the event of this world’s transfiguration—to see and to taste that love by which alone she mysteriously lives, that love that shall reign forever when God will be all in all.

Thesis 13: Existing as we do in the “crater” of God’s own singular action in Christ (Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 36), the church lives utterly by prayer. The incursion of God into the world of sin and death breaks open our failed history, liberating the world from its bondage to death. As such, the church, which lives as a sign of this event, awaiting its consummation in the Parousia, can only be ultimately understood as a communal event of lived prayer that is created by the Spirit who bears us in our weaknesses, “with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8: 26). God’s apocalyptic invasion of the world in the sending of Jesus and the Spirit does not create a stable, habitable place from which we as the church might grasp for ourselves a mode of intellectual or political coherence and control. Rather, this radical grace leaves us in the same place as the Son of Man who has no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58). And it is precisely in this being upended and unhanded that the church exists as prayer. “The true church is thus co-extensive with the community of true prayer” (Forsyth, Soul of Prayer, 54). As a people “timed” by the apocalypse of God in Jesus Christ, who live solely by the grace of the Spirit who conforms us to Christ, the church can embody its calling only by throwing itself in faith upon the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Thus we can finally only speak of the essence of the church in terms of lament, intercession, and doxology. To seek more than this is ultimately to seek another gospel altogether.

These theses are, quite clearly, only the rudiments of a beginning, the fragments of a hope that strains the bounds of theological articulation. The God with whom we have to do in Jesus is truly “exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we could ever ask or think” (Eph 3:20). These theses, such as they are, are here simply to be offered in the fullest sense of the word. Let anything in them that does not speak truly of the gospel of Christ perish and be forgotten forever. The three of us seek, in our discussion, prayer, and writing together to do nothing more than to become transparent to the liberating gospel of Christ, crucified and risen.

As such we hope that in the very doing of theology under the authority of the gospel that we may be given, by the Spirit to be conformed to Christ’s kenosis, his self-expending life given for us and for our salvation. We agree with the words of Donald MacKinnon: “To live as a Christian in the world today is necessarily to live an exposed life; it is to be stripped of the kind of security that tradition, whether ecclesiological or institutional, easily bestows.” It is precisely this exposed life, a life which, in prayer, desires nothing more than transparency to the way of Jesus Christ, that we seek. It is our desire to move forward in the task of theology in the service of the gospel precisely in this mode of kenosis, prayer, and weakness. With MacKinnon “we can only hope that because a false dream has yielded or begun to yield to a temper more deeply perceptive of the mystery of kenosis, we will be a little better prepared to recognize our frailty, and that it is in genuine weakness that our strength is made perfect: in genuine weakness, not the simulated powerlessness of the spiritual poseur” (MacKinnon, Stripping of the Altars, 34, 39).

And so we move on together, praying without ceasing that God will have his way with us in the task of theology in the service of the gospel. At the heart of our common work is the passionate conviction that, in Christ, God has truly brought about a new creation which exceeds and transcends all our attempts to control, regulate, and manage our lives through the various configurations of the power of death. We offer all of this, then, in the spirit of doxology. With Paul, we can only end in praise of the One who has set us free:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. (Rom 11:33–36)


[1] See John Flett, “Communion as Propaganda: Reinhard Hütter and the missionary witness of the ‘Church as Public,’” Scottish Journal of Theology 62 (2009) 457–76.

[2] On the apocalyptic nature of reality in Bohoeffer’s work, see Philip G. Ziegler, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer—An Ethics of God’s Apocalypse?” Modern Theology 23/4 (2007) 579–94; see also Ry Owen Siggelkow, “The Lamb that Was Slain is Worthy to Receive Power: Christology, Apocalyptic, and Secularity in the Ecclesiologies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder” (MA Thesis, St. Paul Seminary, University of St. Thomas, 2009).

[3] Ziegler, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” 585–87.

[4] Karl Barth, CD I/2 302.

[5] See especially J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1997), and “The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians,” Interpretation 54/3 (2000) 246–66.

[6] See Matthew Myer Boulton, God Against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology through Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[7] See Nicholas Healy, “Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?,” International Journal of Systematic Theology, 5/3 (2003) 304.

[8] For more on the nature of the church’s life as being solely one of opened possibilities see Robert W. Jenson, Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 81–82.

Please direct your comments to the ongoing discussion at Inhabitatio Dei

Michael Novak: a proper target for harsh polemic

April 22, 2010 28 comments

In his recent post “Why Novak is completely worthless in every way imaginable,” Halden criticizes Michael Novak’s outlandish post at the First Things blog in which he calls for not only economic sanctions on Iran but also a ‘preventive’ attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Halden attacks Novak for the absurdity of seeking to violently secure the hill on which Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Evan has responded critically to Halden in a post entitled “Is Halden Doerge completely worthless in every way imaginable?” Evan doesn’t seem to understand why Halden would be so incredibly harsh in his post. It turns out that Evan actually has a personal connection to Novak and so this is obviously shaping his response.

Evan’s not interested in arguing with Halden about the merits of Novak’s post or Novak’s work in general. Rather, he is ultimately concerned about the harshness of Halden’s style of critique. And so he concludes his post with the following: “My advice to folks who are interested in blogging about theology would be, frankly, to not blog like Halden often does. I think it’s a mistake to do so, and that it can foster a stunted ability to interact with other people.” Now, I am all for reasoned and balanced critique over polemical hyperbole, but the truth of the matter is that Michael Novak is, to borrow Eugene McCarraher’s phrase, one of “Satan’s favorite sock puppets.” And so critique, even polemical critique is necessary. Considering his huge influence on lay Catholics (which is, by the way, comparable to the late Richard Neuhaus), his recent remarks should be called out for what they are: sub-Christian. Evan admits to having never read much of Novak’s work, and perhaps this is the most telling aspect of his post against Halden. Frankly, Michael Novak is doing awful work. This is the bitter truth. Critiques need to be leveled against him, in every forum, whether it be academic or a more informal blogging forum. Now I am sure Novak is a nice guy and a perfectly sincere Christian, which is precisely what makes his work so insidious. I don’t know about you, but as someone who has painfully labored through much of Novak’s work in the past, I’m with Halden on this one. And for the record, my advice to those interested in theology blogging is to learn the art of provocative blogging from the best of them–Halden Doerge–but be sure to take some time to learn from Evan’s “level-headed” blogging too.

Categories: Blogging, Nationalism, Neocons
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