Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Church and Divine Action

When I read George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine last term, one of my many concerns was that he did not (and could not?) account for divine action. It was not simply Lindbeck's lack of mentioning or discussing divine action that troubled me when he talked about "the church" and "ecclesial practices," but rather his insistence upon the immanent nature of the Christian "religion." I wondered if it was not merely, like Healy says about Hauerwas in the article referenced below, that divine action, the Word, and pneumatology are presupposed. Rather, it becomes a question of Lindbeck's work whether or not certain conceptions of ecclesiology functionally negates the need for divine action entirely. And ecclesial notions that eliminate divine action involve a host of concerns for me namely the failure to attend to the ever-present need for the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God into our present age that is enslaved to the powers. In his essay entitled, "Karl Barth's Ecclesiology Reconsidered," Nicholas M. Healy discusses the same sort of ecclesial trend I just mentioned that is taken up by Hauerwas as well to whatever extent. While I have not personally engaged with the works of Hauerwas as much as other "postliberal" theologians, I thought that this excerpt nicely highlights the concerns Barth would hold in relation to the current ecclesiologies that I have also found problematic specifically for its "lack of attention to God's action in our midst." 
"One gets the impression from With the Grain of the Universe as well as from his other writings that for Hauerwas, Christianity is fundamentally about living within a particular narrative, about being trained and formed so that one acquires Christian dispositions and thus a character that conforms to that narrative, all with a view to embodying the politics of Jesus, a politics that counters the liberal democratic politics of the USA. Hauerwas focuses his attention on the concrete church because it is there that the gospel is displayed in the lives of Christians. The church is discussed in terms of its practices and doctrines, in terms, that is, of human action and thought. And the church is at the center of Hauerwas’s theology. He spends far less time on the doctrines of the Word and the Spirit that make our witness and politics possible, though, to be sure, it is always clear that the person and work of Jesus Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit are presupposed.  
This (relative) lack of attention to God’s action in our midst might well have been something that Barth would have brought up in his response to Hauerwas. For as Barth understood the matter, a Christian theological description of anything requires at some point a well-rounded account of the difference the activity of God makes, in both Word and Spirit. Hauerwas’s appropriation of social philosophies like those of Wittgenstein and MacIntyre over against Kant and his theological followers has been extraordinarily fruitful, making his work a truly prophetic force within the contemporary church. I suspect, though, that while Barth might have approved, he would say that the difference God makes to the church needs to be made clearer. It remains unclear what difference the Word and the Spirit’s active presence might make to descriptions of the church’s being and life that are couched in social-philosophical categories like ‘virtue’ and ‘narrative’.  
To be sure, Barth himself notes an example or two of special ethics done very successfully without the initial general ethics (CD 3/4, p. 4), and the same point surely applies to ecclesiology. But accounts of the concrete church and the activities of its members developed in varying degrees of independence from well-rounded accounts of more central doctrines seem in recent years have come to be more the rule than the exception. Barth might ask of Hauerwas and of those who follow his lead whether in their laudable – and quite reasonable – effort to recover an ecclesial politics, they have not veered a bit too far towards presenting – and, in some cases, maybe even thinking of? – the church, the Christian life and its forms and institutions, as an ‘end in itself’? And is this question, however it be answered,not made possible by what amount to largely theologically neutral accounts of the church and of human action within it? And when one writes of the church and human action with little or no reference to divine action, is it not all too easy to end up supporting a view of the church that will be reductive and thereby in some aspects in effect anti-Christian, in spite of good intentions to the contrary? For to omit or de-emphasize the primary constitutive element of the church – God’s action in Word and Spirit – is, Barth would say, to construct an abstract ecclesiology. It is to talk about the Scheinkirche, the church in its non-theological appearance, rather than what is truly the church (KD 4/2, p. 698; CD 4/2, p. 617)." 
- Nicholas M. Healy, "Karl Barth's Ecclesiology Revisited," 295-296.


Frederick Froth said...

Strange how you as a woman limit all of your postings to the rantings/writings of power-and-control-seeking male talking heads!
Why arent there some famous, original and influential 20th century female (and therefore necessarily feminist) theologians?

But is the Acausal Divine Person the kind of Being who can "act" in the world?
What is the world?

Or is all of HIS-story created by human beings in their benighted double-minded ignorance? Especially by patriarchal males who have been waging war against the feminine principle - the Goddess, the Great She, the Woman Clothed In the Sun, or just plain Shakti - dimensions of our existence-being for at least 3000 years.

Matthew Frost said...

The thing is, Lindbeck's work is not about divine action. It's about the coexistence of relativisms on the human end of things. It's about not absolutizing theology and religion. At rock bottom, it's about dialogue between theologians—especially Christian theologians, but also by extension between the systems of religious thought of multiple religions. His career was really made after this in dialogue with Judaism, as much as in ecumenical dialogues.

One can ask the question you ask of Lindbeck only to the extent that one can ask it of any and every religious system of thought that may be put into dialogue. If we're going to talk about theologies as though they exist—because they clearly do—and attempt to get past parochial insistence upon the "fact" that mine is right, and yours is at best sadly mistaken, and at worst deeply and harmfully heretical, we need some version of what Lindbeck does. Any total system of thought can become an idol. But you miss Lindbeck's point if you only see the idolatry of total systems, and not the attempt to sideline all of these things and instead put people in mutual conversation about contextualized belief. Diplomacy, in other words, is not the enemy of dogmatics!

It is certainly true that what Lindbeck is not, is a man who does dogmatics. Still, he works part of the same street that Barth does, insisting that the nature of Christian proclamation is bound up with the nature of Christian action, and that it can be functionally evaluated. To be used correctly, what he does must be seen as preamble to less-parochial dogmatics. How much of Barth would be different, if he understood Judaism even to the extent that he came to understand Catholicism over his career?

Ben said...

I don't pretend to understand all of what you or Nicholas Healy (or Matthew Frost) is saying, but it reminded me of something I read in Brevard Child's Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: "I remain highly critical of any theological position in which ecclesiology takes precedence over christology [and pneumatology]." Just wanted to share.

Kait Dugan said...

Matt Frost - I'm aware that Lindbeck's work isn't explicitly about divine action (though he does make statements that necessarily bring to bear consequences about the necessity of divine action). Everything you said is fine and his goal is stately clearly up front: an ecumenism between world religions. But Lindbeck is also clear that unless he can offer a satisfying account of Christian doctrine through his rule theory then his entire thesis is called into question. And that is just my point - can we give a faithful account of Christian doctrine and the faith if we say that our theological speech and our ecclesial practices never witness beyond themselves or stand in need of the in-breaking of revelation? His work is also widely appropriated within a large trend for a contemporary ecclesiology. If you read some of Healy's articles, he'll make this clear. And this post in no way is aiming to say that diplomacy is "the enemy of dogmatics."

Ben - Great quote, thanks for sharing. Glad I still have you as a reader! Healy says that christology and pneumatology are "presupposed" for Hauerwas, but sometimes I wonder what it would mean if we did all of our theology, including an "ecclesiology," without presupposing either but as wholly derivative, you know?

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