Monday 25 August 2014

Christianity and social vision: once more on creation and apocalyptic

Dear reader! My recent reflections on creation and apocalyptic were so roundly repudiated, ridiculed, and rebuked that I thought a few points of response and clarification might be in order.

1. Childhood

Nothing attracted more jeering, especially in the echo chambers of Facebook, than my observation that raising children had influenced my view of the world. It was especially seminary-educated individuals who professed to be shocked by such a revelation. I was denounced for implying that childless people cannot have sound views. I was said to be promoting noxious "hetero-normative" values and to be propounding "a doctrine of the family". I was condemned, reasonably enough, for advocating "the maintenance of white supremacy". One criticism ended with the ironic comment, "But hey, I have no children" – as if to demonstrate that, in the despicable world of Ben Myers, nobody except a parent could ever be qualified to express an opinion about anything.

It is always interesting to see how much of ourselves can be projected on to what we read. (Just go back and read the offending passage in light of those readers' criticisms, and you'll see what I mean.)

When I wrote the post, I didn't advance any doctrine of the family. I didn't recommend parenthood as a universal path to truth. I didn't even claim that child rearing is necessarily a good or wholesome experience. I simply explained that, for me, it was an experience that altered my perspective on the world.

What I tried to offer was an honest autobiographical account of how my own view of society began to change several years ago. I mentioned three personal experiences that contributed to this change: the experience of raising children, the experience of working in institutions, and the experience of teaching. Given that we're discussing the relation between the Christian faith and society, I don't see why it is ridiculous to admit that experiencing some new aspects of society (these three things were all new to me at the time) might alter one's perspective. Are we meant to get all our theories out of books, and never test them against any of our own experience of what the world is like?

In the kind of critical theory currently in vogue, it is, in fact, customary to tell one's own story as part of an explanation of how one sees things. Such autobiographical material is usually treated with the greatest deference. But apparently the experience of child rearing is beneath contempt and cannot be accepted as a legitimate occasion for changing one's perspective.

Why should that be the case? When I used the hetero-normative code word – children – it triggered an automatic response of hostility and contempt, even though my use of the word was personal and autobiographical. Is this, perhaps, because seminary-educated people have imbibed a critical theory that trains them always to spot the difference between the goodies and the baddies?

2. Institutions

To my remarks on approximate justice, a number of people – not only the kindly Craig Keen but also the inimitable Adam Kotsko – responded that the New Testament points to a very different set of assumptions about God and the world. Craig summed up this objection in his lapidary style:
Ben, if you are saying that on this day you believe that the doctrine of creation, worked out particularly among the children of Abraham in praise of the God who liberated them from Babylonian bondage and then liberated Jesus from imperial slaughter, is a way of articulating the potency lying in wait in extant orders, this is a sad day, it seems to me.
One of Adam's wisecracks made the same point: "I knew I’d found authentic Christianity when I had kids and bought into the institutions – just like Jesus and Paul did."

I understand the appeal of this line of criticism. There is, in the theology of our day, a widespread nostalgia for the first-century Christian experience of marginalisation, dispossession, and persecution. But I think it's quite misleading to compare the plight of the earliest Christians to the situation of the church in western societies. A clear statement of the problem is in H. Richard Niebuhr's 1946 essay on "The Responsibility of the Church for Society". The church's responsibility for society, Niebuhr writes, has many historical roots:
But one highly important root of the sense of obligation is the Christians' recognition that they have done not a little to make the secular societies what they are. In this respect the modern church is in a wholly different position from that which the New Testament church or even the church of Augustine's time occupied. The Christian community of our time, whether or not formally united, is one of the great organizations and movements in civilization; it is one of the oldest human societies; it has been the teacher of most of the nations now in existence. It cannot compare itself with the small, weak company of the early centuries living in the midst of secular societies that had grown up independently of it…. [Modern empires and nation states] were not suckled in their infancy by wolves but nursed and baptized by the Church; it instructed them in their youth and has been the companion of their maturity.
H. Richard Niebuhr was not trying to open an American branch of Radical Orthodoxy. Writing in 1946, he was under no illusions about the legacy of western Christian social order. It is precisely because Christian influence on society has been so deeply problematic that the church cannot afford the luxury of withdrawing from social institutions.

That's broadly how I see our situation today. Triumphalist complacency, prophetic or ironic posturing, the cultivation of an ostensibly pure ecclesial zone – such stances all amount to the same thing, a tragic failure of responsibility for the world as it actually exists in our time.

Personally I think any theology today has to be able to say something about the way Christians engage with the world through institutions. A revolutionary theology that despises institutions as a matter of principle might sound exciting, but it runs the risk of marginalising Christian discipleship from the exact places where it is most sorely needed.

3. Justice

I was surprised that so many readers were disconcerted by my remarks about justice and transcendence. I have already quoted Craig's words above which understood me to be describing the "potency lying in wait in extant orders". Elsewhere, someone spoke of my "glee for existing order"; and many comments expressed shock and disgust that I would so calmly dismiss the quest for absolute justice in this world.

But an appeal to transcendent justice doesn't mean that one gives up on the world. Nor does it mean that things will automatically improve by some magic inner potency. Nor, again, does it mean that everything ought to stay the same. Rather a doctrine of transcendent justice attempts to hold two things in tension. Divine justice supplies a vision for social change; it refers to an absolute criterion against which existing social arrangements can be measured, criticised, and improved. But the transcendence of this justice destroys the presumptions of any given social order, as well as the presumptions of the revolutionary; it passes judgment on all conservative and progressive claims to ultimacy. Because there is a transcendent justice, social improvement is possible; but because it is a transcendent justice, even the best social change is partial and incomplete.

The productive tension between these two poles of justice and transcendence is, as I see it, the main contribution of the Christian faith to a social vision. It is a strange reflection on our times that any of this should require explanation. Don't they teach Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr in Protestant seminaries anymore? Original sin and eschatology? What do they teach?

So as to make it clear that such a tension does not entail family-values quietism or a mindless capitulation to existing order, let me quote the so-called Oscar Romero Prayer, a document that I hope will be considered above reproach on such matters:
It helps, now and then, to step back
And take a long view.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

It is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction

Of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.

Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying
That the kingdom always lies beyond us.


This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one
 day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted
Knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects

Far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
And there is a sense of liberation in realizing this.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,

A step along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord's
 grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
But that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
Ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

4. Apocalyptic

I did not set out in the previous post to explain or categorise the different uses of apocalyptic in theology. I was describing my own changing views, so my concern was with the use of apocalyptic themes in some of my own writing over the years. I noted that my own version of theological resentment was heavily indebted to Marxist critical theory, and I explained why I no longer find this satisfactory. But it was not my intention to impugn every Christian scholar who makes use of apocalyptic categories. In particular, there is a whole school of New Testament scholarship devoted to excavating the apocalyptic dimensions of St Paul's thought. One can learn a great deal from the penetrating exegetical studies of writers like Käsemann, Martyn, and Gaventa; such research seeks to provide a sober picture of the world of the New Testament and of the endlessly wondrous mind of St Paul. 

The problem, for me, lies in how one applies such findings to contemporary theological questions. In my own publications in this area, I assumed that one can quite easily replicate St Paul's apocalyptic categories in a contemporary account of the church's relation to western societies. For the reasons stated under #2 above, I no longer believe this to be the case. I am not St Paul and Australia is not the Roman Empire – much as we might all wish otherwise.

In addition, it seems to me that Pauline theology suffers from distortion – and soon begins to take on a gnostic, anti-worldly colouring – when it is synthesised with Marxist critical theory. I don't think it's controversial to point out that a good deal of what is currently called apocalyptic theology involves such a synthesis, either implicitly or as a matter of principle.

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