Monday, February 27, 2012

Ecclesia as Mission.

I spent most of the day reading Nate Kerr's Christ, History, and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission for seminar tomorrow. And then I spent a few hours discussing the book with some good friends. My mind is still reeling from the book so these thoughts are probably premature and unhelpful. But I found Kerr's understanding of ecclesia to be a direct extension of Barth's understanding of Church as event. In my estimation and to my utter surprise given the numerous reviews of the book, and I shared this with my friends, I don't think that Kerr undermines the importance of ecclesia at all, but rather reformulates the identity of the Church in a way that takes us away from attempting to secure our own existence and power, to the Church that is always for the other and only exists as it does so in concrete action. You might not like his definition of ecclesia, but he certainly has one (despite its ever-present fluidity). Here was one of my favorite parts:
"The heart of the question of 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"'. Whatever we thus mean by speaking of the church as an ecclesia, we can no longer simply mean by this a 'gathering' which occurs exclusively or even primarily in terms of 'centred' spaces of a formation that occurs prior to the movement into that which is 'outside' or 'beyond'. ... The immediate referent of the ecclesia is not then that church which would tarry along here below as a counter-polis to the cities of earth, but rather that eschatological city in the fullness of whose coming there will not longer be even a church, but rather the manifestation of that 'new humanity' from all the nations in and through whom God's own life will be all in all. ...

Constituted by mission, 'church' is entirely the operation of God's apocalyptic action in Christ, and its 'peoplehood' the diasporic work of the Spirit. As under exile, such a peoplehood is bound to appear as tenuously ad hoc, its fleeting presence being only 'for a time', and so at best politically irrelevant and at worst dangerously ineffective. And yet such might be the surest sign that one has, by God's grace, been delivered over to that mode of engaged and embodied action whereby alone we pass from ideology to doxology" (189, 196).
Isn't that what we fear most? That ecclesia will be fleeting, and ultimately seen by the world as irrelevant, and ineffective? That ecclesia is not simply a being that "is" as an entity we can claim and control? Isn't everything we try to do be it through fantastically hip visual media, the aesthetic of high-church liturgies, political involvement and alignment with certain interest groups, or even action for and among the poor usually a desire to secure the Church's presence, relevance, and effectiveness in the world? Don't we usually live as though the very salvation of the world depends upon the Church as a mediation of divine revelation? I think Kerr's corrective words against such attempt to secure power and visibility over and against the world can not be ignored.

Disclaimer: When I ask rhetorical questions like those in this post, I'm not necessarily referencing any specific person or school of thought in general. My last aim is to be uncharitable and alienate. This blog is almost always a space to work out my own personal theological views rather than a violent exercise in polemics. I am working out my own resistances to a Barthian understanding of the Church as an event, which are directly manifested in the questions I listed themselves. Because ultimately, I (sinfully) want to secure my own power and my own relevance, and effectiveness in this world and have done so in the past through Church attendance, the liturgy, political involvement, and working with the poor. Kerr's words are those of judgment over and against attempts to do so and I thank him for it.


Adam said...

Thanks for bringing up all these books to read. I add them to my book wishlist and I get to a few of them. But thanks for reading them for the team :)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Kait,

I have not read Kerr's book but from your description and quotation, the church in Kerr's understanding is nothing more than a group of people who encountered by God momentarily ("fleeting presence"?). Yet I have difficulty to see how is this being politically irrelevant and ineffectively by itself?

Aren't there moments when the happening of the church also is politically effective (at times when both God's apocalyptic presence meets the cries of the world)?

Jon Coutts said...

great stuff!

Francis P said...

thank you for your consistently insightful posts. You are a fine leader in learning for those of us who are trying to find our way through the often difficult concepts you address, because you always seem to pose the right questions. thanks, please keep up the great work.

Kait Dugan said...

Sze - Sure, effectiveness can happen by the grace of God when God's apocalyptic presence meets the 'church' in their action for and engagement with the world, specifically those who are considered the least of those in society. But relevance or effectiveness is always the result of such doxological action, never the goal of the 'church'. Kerr would probably name such goals as "ideology" that only leads to violence as the 'church' has historically sought to secure its own *presence*, relevance, and effectiveness in the world and that means always assuming a posture over and against the world. Thanks for your comment!

And all else - thanks for the encouraging words. Lord knows I need them!

Anonymous said...

Kait, another great post.
My question is how do we discern if the liturgy or being with the least of these are born out doxological response to God's action or ideology? Do we ever know if it is security that drives these concerns over the graceful response of joy towards God? I guess I lean towards thinking of the doxological response to the good news that throws us off in Jesus over the concern of ideology. Although I might admit I am choosing the devil I know over the devil I don't.

myleswerntz said...

Thanks for this. Nate's book is both provocative and important to be considered. Quick question: could it be that church as "event" doesn't have to presume simply the liturgy, or as Kerr wants to distance himself from, "the polis"? Could it be--since Barth posits the church on the continuum with that which is not the church, i.e. as that body which has recognized Christ as Lord--that "event" simply refers to the *mode* of the church's appearance, whether gathered or scattered? In that way, it doesn't seem that Barth would be ultimately opposed to Kerr's formulation on the one hand (church-as-diaspora), but would push back on the a-temporality of Kerr's proposal on the one hand. In other words, "event" describes simply the way that "church" happens, whether gathered or scattered, such that our diasporic acts are only acts of the Spirit as they are taken up by God in Christ.

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