Saturday 5 January 2008

Lieven Boeve: God interrupts history

Lieven Boeve, God Interrupts History: Theology in a Time of Upheaval (New York: Continuum, 2007), 212 pp. (review copy courtesy of T&T Clark)

Lieven Boeve is professor of fundamental theology at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. In his earlier book, Interrupting Tradition (Eerdmans, 2003), he analysed the relation between the Christian narrative and its postmodern context, and he argued for the openness of the Christian story to encounters with otherness. In this new work, Boeve continues to pursue this approach to contextual theology by developing a methodology of a contextual “theology of interruption.”

Boeve’s proposal is set against the backdrop of correlation methods in modern theology (e.g. Tillich, Schillebeeckx, Küng, Tracy). While theologians such as Barth and Milbank assume a discontinuity between Christian discourse and its secular context, the correlation method presupposes a fundamental continuity between faith and its context. But Boeve seeks to move beyond both these approaches by envisioning Christian faith as that which interrupts and reconfigures the context.

“Interruption” thus functions as an alternative to both continuity and discontinuity. On the one hand, interruption is opposed to correlationist understandings of continuity, since faith is a radical new intrusion into the existing context. And on the other hand, interruption is opposed to conceptions of sheer discontinuity, since the context which is interrupted is altered but does not cease to exist. Interruption is the event in which an existing narrative is sharply halted and problematised, in order then to be opened up and propelled in a new direction. There is thus both continuity (since the same narrative is reconfigured and redirected) and discontinuity (since the narrative is forever changed by this new incursion). Indeed, interruption occurs precisely “where discontinuity and continuity encounter one another” (p. 103).

So in contrast to any mere “correlation” between faith and its context, Boeve calls for a radical “recontextualisation” of faith’s context. This means that, although dialogue with the context can never be suspended, we must resist the correlationist longing “for harmony and synthesis between tradition and context,” and instead foreground the Christian faith’s own “particularity, contextuality, narrativity, historicity, contingency, and otherness” (p. 40). For Boeve, therefore, the fundamental datum for theological method is the fact that Christian faith is always one contingent possibility amidst a plurality of others. This confrontation of faith with plurality and otherness sets in motion the process of recontextualisation. Faith is neither a (discontinuous) “counter-culture” nor a (continuous) “partner” of secularised culture – instead, it is the irreducibly singular interruption which takes the cultural context and opens it anew towards the reality of God.

Boeve takes this model of “interruption” and uses it to rethink diverse themes such as religious experience, sacramental rites, the relation between faith and science, the apophaticism of contemporary spirituality (which he nicely describes as “something-ism”), and the place of christology in interfaith dialogue. But the richest and most valuable part of the book is his analysis of time and apocalyptic in the final chapter. Here, he rightly notes that the demythologising tendency to purge the Christian message of its apocalyptic dimension “introduce[s] a perception of time that makes it impossible in principle to authentically conceptualise the radicality of the Christian faith” (p. 188).

Following Johann-Baptist Metz, Boeve observes that the relation between God and time is structured apocalyptically: “God interrupts time” (p. 195). God is not part of the process of history, nor does God stand outside history. Rather, God is the boundary and crisis of history. Such a conception of time, Boeve argues, produces a “radical temporalisation” of the world, with “a radical awareness of the irreducible seriousness of what occurs in the here and now.” History thus becomes real history, and the future becomes a real future which cannot be reduced to a mere “seamless continuation” of progress, development or evolution (p. 197). The task of Christian theology is thus to submit to the interruptive judgment of God over history – and this is always a fundamentally political task, since the church must remind its cultural context that human history is also “a history of anxiety and the cry for justice.” In this way, Christian faith “disrupts the histories of conqueror and vanquished, interrupting the ideologies of the powerful” (pp. 201-4).

Although this book is shaped mainly by discussions in modern Dutch-language theology, I think Boeve’s methodological proposal is of much broader significance. The central argument is crisp and decisive, and Boeve’s thought is often fresh and energetic. Even though he mounts a compelling critique of correlationist approaches, his proposal might best be understood as an attempt to modify and nuance (and so to sustain) the liberal correlation method. After all, Boeve still perceives a fundamental correlation between faith and its context, but he adds the crucial qualification that this is a correlation between an interruptive faith and an interrupted context, a context which has already been radically altered and re-structured by the divine action.

Since one of my own interests is in developing an apocalyptic/interruptive model of divine agency from a Barthian direction, I often found myself wishing that Boeve would lean further in the direction of discontinuity, instead of returning rather hastily to a revised model of contextual correlation. But in spite of that, I’m very glad to have discovered this book. It presents a vigorous argument and provides valuable stimulus for contemporary work in theological method. In the end, I suppose my only complaint is that I would have liked to have seen even more interruption!


Anonymous said...

Great review Ben! Would you recommend this to a novice? And if not then what are a few works you'd suggest before moving on to this one?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Nick. Yeah, a "novice" could certainly read this. It might presuppose some basic understanding of Catholic correlation-theologies, but it's really not a difficult book.

Anonymous said...

This is great - just in time for this next semester. Thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great review Ben. I would add that Boeve is often guilty of lumping all of the "anti-moderns" together such that justice is not done to any of them and in which he is unable to see their varied critiques of modernity as prudential judgments (not necessarily as principled rejections of the sacramentality of nature). Thus linking Barth and Milbank together in stressing discontinuity misses how importantly they differ from each other. Milbank's extreme intrinsicism collapses the nature/grace distinction as well as the church/world distinction. Barth's account more genuinely and complexly articulates an account of how creation and grace ought not be conflated with either Milbank's actual collapsing or with Boeve's misread of Milbank which reads his harsh rhetorical tone as simple rejection of God's work of creation.


Anonymous said...

Excuse the poorly structured last sentence. I meant to say that Barth's account of the first and second gifts of grace is not as problematic as Milbank's actual collapsing of the two nor with how liberals often misread his harsh tone as implying a type of hyper seperation of the two. Apologies for the clumsy post.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Ben, a fantastic review. It is good to see someone invoking a plague on the houses of both correlation/mediating theologies and RO, which has become for me more and more like the proverbial Chinese meal in UK parlance - a great rush, but you find yourself hungry again a few hours later.

And full marks to Ethan for alerting readers to the profound differences between Milbank and Barth on the matter of nature and grace - particularly, I would add, as it plays itself out in politics, where Barth, unlike Milbank, did not refuse the secular as taboo and irretreivably benighted, and thus could be radical (and progressive) without being sectarian.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I admit that I haven't a clue what you guys are talking about. Perhaps we can bridge the chasm here between lectern and pew if somebody can explain to me how this "interruption" theology relates/ could relate to life and worship at the congregational/ parish level?

JKnott said...


Not having read Boeve I can't critique him on this score, but I can say that I would be interested in whether he engages Barth's critique of "a certain kind of Kierkegaardianism" in his essay, "Nein!" Because judging by what you say here, it seems Boeve is actually advocating just that position Barth was critiquing there, and if so would need to answer the critique.

Barth considers the possible theological relevance of a despair and loss of certainty on the immanent plane, seemingly at least similar to Boeve's "interrupted context," and rejects it as actually more Promethean than any other type of natural theology. Therefore he would not see it as some kind of compromise position between him and natural theologians. See Brunner and Barth, _Natural Theology_, Wipf and Stock, pp. 119-20.

Parenthetically, I suspect that much contemporary theology that ostensibly rejects natural theology and/or metaphysics actually, if unwittingly, falls into this category of a certain kind of Kierkegaardianism.

::aaron g:: said...

This sounds like a useful proposal. Thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

Yes Kim your right. But remember that they both do invoke Christian socialism. I think any sectarian tag on Milbank is a profound misreading. Not because I wish to defend him here (though he is very useful at some points), but rather because his church has no real distinction from creation as such. He is very critical of liberalism yes (and this is, along with the intro to TST make people read him as a theoretically oriented hyper Hauerwasian), but is quite open to many forms of political thought that are not Christian; Anarchism, communism, etc. Ultimately the two gifts are one for Milbank and so I would claim he is ultimately incapable of consistently offering a Hauerwasian counter-politics or a Barthian dialectical "No!" However, the language if (absolute?) interruption in Barthian dialectic or Yoderian apocalyptic should consider deeply the theoretical challenges that Milbank offers in his Bulgakovian and Lubacian moments (even if his reading de Lubac is atrocious at just this point).

I really appreciate this blog and the regular commentators (especially Kim's). This is fantastic theological exchange.



Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these very helpful comments.

Just to return to CP's question for a moment: "can somebody can explain to me how this 'interruption' theology relates to life and worship at the parish level?" This is an excellent question, and it's worth noting that pastoral questions are very much the driving engine of this whole debate over methodology.

One way of looking at the debate would be to say that we're discussing three broad approaches to preaching. Should the preacher use scripture to reflect on meanings which are already immanent within the surrounding culture (David Tracy)? Or should the "world of scripture" be expounded without any direct reference to culture (Barth)? Or, again, should the preacher reflect on the way in which the world of scripture has invaded and altered the surrounding culture (Boeve's proposal)?

Obviously that's a very crude sketch of the three approaches — but I hope that still gives you a rough picture of the kind of pastoral questions that are driving the (seemingly abstract) methodological discussion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ethan,

Thanks for that. Allow me to withdraw the word "sectarian", which, particularly in the US, after Hauerwas, admittedly now suffers from runaway inflation. What I'm getting at is that Barth would refuse Milbank's relentless, resentful assault on the "secular". One can't imagine him using Marlene Dietrich in his eschatology!

Drew said...

Interruption is the event in which an existing narrative is sharply halted and problematised

I'm interested in the way history, event and narrative are used here. The interruption of history itself is a narrative, which in turn, is interrupted. So then, it's interruptions all the way down? ie. The choice between the three simplified options Ben presented above is never actually resolved. The interruption is a kind of erratic oscillation and (could you say a kind of contamination) of the options?

Or is this completely off the planet?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great review, Ben! We've created a link to it on our blog. Have a great weekend!

Natanael Disla said...

Very interesting review and topic. I have added it to my wish list.

Natanael Disla
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Anonymous said...

Readers of this article interested in religion, dialectic, and history, may wish to check out God, History, & Dialectic by Dr. Joseph P. Farrell.

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