A reflection on Vincent Donovan

In The Church in the Midst of Creation, Donovan builds on his previous work, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, and in many ways it really cannot be appreciated without having first read that book. I was particularly reminded of one part of his earlier work where he writes about what he is observing amongst the Masai, an observation that is pertinent for his later book. He observes:

There is no use arguing that it isn’t true happiness they have, or that they aren’t really happy – because they are, at least in that momentary escape from their loneliness and hopelessness while drinking the rich butterfat milk of their Zebu cattle, or striding across the Masai plains, or dancing the beautiful dances of the nomads. St. Paul says this happiness is a sign of God among them. He was here before we ever got there. It is simply up to us to bring him out so they can recognise him.

Writing from back home in the United States, Donovan, in The Church in the Midst of Creation, has, between the Preface and the Epilogue, nine chapters in which he peruses back and forth across history seeing the way that the Roman Catholic Church has became standardised, specialised, and centralised (he argues largely because of the industrial revolution), with a uniformity imposed by the Vatican and a Christ who has become a European Christ and has shackled the Spirit. Donovan responds by proposing a cosmic, or planetary, Christ.

There are echoes here of a response he offered to a review of his previous book, Christianity Rediscovered, where he wrote that

While we have to admit that Western Christianity has monopolized Christ, and has shackled Christ in the bondage of a single culture to such an extent that the Western Christ has become a stumbling block for the Holy Spirit, Christ will remain, I believe, the point at which Christianity and Hinduism will meet, the point at which Christianity and every religion and culture will meet. It will serve no purpose at all to water down the heart of the Christian message to make it more acceptable to the world of humankind. We must bring the full brunt of the gospel message to the religions and cultures of the world. The understanding of Christ will undoubtedly change, and expand and grow as a result of this process, perhaps even in a frightening and unfamiliar manner, but it should have grown long ago out of the narrow dimensions of the Mediterranean Christ.

He develops this thought further in The Church in the Midst of Creation where he advocates the need for the Western Church to embrace a planetary Christ, a world Christ. He writes:

We have to admit that after all this existence and scientific scholarship, after nearly two thousand years of Christianity, the Christ that is worshipped in our churches, the Christ that is the basis for our church and all its faith life and activity, is no more than a Mediterranean Christ. That is as far as Christ has grown. European and American theologians see nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with the fact that we have not even begun to think of, or search for, the meaning of a planetary Christ, a world Christ. We continue to let all our efforts revolve around a Mediterranean Christ. We of the West have monopolized Christ…. There is surely more to be revealed about the Christ than is already known. But we, trapped in our own culture with its exact and measured scientific view of the world, with our lack of sacramental vision, may not be the ones to discover it. Like Mary Magdelene, we are afraid to let go of Christ, to let Christ out of our grasp, out of our control.

This kind of thinking raises serious questions about how we understand the nature of Church as Incarnational. In what sense are Christ’s people his form in the world? This is a different question than that of whether of not the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation. With Forsyth, I contend that it is not. However, Donovan’s question, one of many raised in his book, is one that I wish to consider in this post, albeit briefly.

I think that we need to respond to this question firstly by seeing the Church as a kenotic community. There is at the heart of reconciliation the solidarity with the world which the Church does not take on as an extra-curricula activity, but which is constituted of its very existence as the kenotic community. The kenosis of Christ is the ‘self-emptying’ (Phil 2) which constitutes the inner movement of condescension and humility which characterises the life of the Son to the Father. As Jesus drew his disciples into his own ‘self-emptying’ life and ministry of obedience and service to the Father on behalf of the world, he formed them into a ‘kenotic community’. As those who bare continuous testimony to the presence of Christ in the world following Pentecost, the Church exists as the community where the world can discover and experience its own participation, reconciliation and salvation in the kenosis of God in Christ. Karl Barth noted that ‘The world does not know itself. It does not know God, nor man, nor the relationship and covenant between God and man. Hence it does not know its own origin, state or goal. It does not know what divides nor what unites. It does not know either its life and salvation or its death and destruction. It is blind to its own reality. Its existence is a groping in the dark.’

All this serves as a sober reminder that the Church does not ‘possess’ Christ as its own. To this end, Bonhoeffer observed that ‘Everything would be ruined if one were to try and reserve Christ for the Church and to allow the world only some kind of law, even if it were a Christian law. Christ dies for the world, and it is only in the midst of the world that Christ is Christ.’ It is not as though the world needs the Church in order to have Christ; the Church also needs the world in order to know Christ. In this sense, Christ’s existence in the world is ‘non-religious’ or ‘worldly’. Thus there is a certain ‘boundary-lessness’ to the Church in the world. Because Christ is the true centre, there are no longer any boundaries by which one can determine or define the existence of God in the world. So there is a need for us to be able to speak freely of the reality of the world for the Church, and of the solidarity between the Church and the world. The latter because the true community of Jesus Christ does not exist esoterically and invisibly but visibly and exoterically, so that it may be noted by the world around. Otto Weber notes,

Seen Christologically, every rejection of the world by the Community would have to place in question “docetically” the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It would have to have been the case that God did not become “true man” in Jesus Christ if the Community were intended not to be “truly” in the world. But above all, the victory of the Resurrected One over the “cosmos” (John 16:33) would have to be disregarded if the Community were supposed to understand the “world” solely as a confusing, alien reality, to be held at a distance and excluded.

The incarnational solidarity between Christ and the world binds the Church to the world and the world to the Church in a critical but positive tension of judgement and reconciliation, of sin and grace. As Barth says,

Solidarity with the world means full commitment to it, unreserved participation in its situation, in the promise given it by creation, in its responsibility for the arrogance, sloth and falsehood which reign within it, in its suffering under the resultant distress, but primarily and supremely in the free grace of God demonstrated and addressed to it in Jesus Christ, and therefore in its hope…. Solidarity with the world means that those who are genuinely pious approach the children of the world as such, that those who are genuinely righteous are not ashamed to sit down with the unrighteous as friends, that those who are genuinely wise do not hesitate to seem to be fools among fools, and that those who are genuinely holy are not too good or irreproachable to go down “into hell” in a very secular fashion…. since Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world, [the Church] can exist in worldly fashion, not unwillingly nor with a bad conscience, but willingly and with a good conscience. It consists in the recognition that its members also bear in themselves and in some way actualise all human possibilities.

Given this, there is an obligation placed upon the Church towards the world. This obligation is the responsibility for the world, or to the world, which Christ assumed in coming to the World as the Word. So one cannot discharge obligation to God and at the same time be irresponsible toward the world.

But at the same time, there is a necessary contradiction which must be borne within the ‘same body’, a contradiction that Donovan, in my opinion, fails to take seriously enough, and which Hauerwas and Willimon bear witness to when they write:

The challenge facing today’s Christians is not the necessity to translate Christian convictions into a modern idiom, but rather to form a community, a colony of resident aliens which is so shaped by our convictions that no one even has to ask what we mean by confessing belief in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The biggest problem facing Christian theology is not translation but enactment. No doubt, one of the major reasons for the great modern theologians who strove to translate our language for modernity was that the church had become so inept at enactment. Yet no clever theological moves can be substituted for the necessity of the church being a community of people who embody our language about God, where talk about God is used without apology, because our life together does not mock our words. The church is the visible, political enactment of our language of God by a people who can name their sin and accept God’s forgiveness and are thereby enabled to speak the truth in love. Our Sunday worship has a way of reminding us, in the most explicit and ecclesial of ways, of the source of our power, the peculiar nature of our solutions to what ails us.

Returning back now to our earlier discussion regarding that necessary contradiction between Christ and the world, we might deduce that the reconciliation of the world to God produces and sustains the contradiction for the sake of its healing. Thus, the ‘kenotic community’ exposes the contradiction by virtue of its solidarity with the world. Barth discusses the problem between the reconciliation actualised in Christ and the contemporary situation of the Christian in the world as the ‘divine problem’, and says that God takes up this ‘problem’ and solves it in the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.

Thus there remains a ‘difference in solidarity’. ‘In Jesus Christ the community and the rest of humanity constitute a differentiated, yet in this differentiation firmly integrated, whole.’ This leads to a three-part conclusion: (i) the world would be lost without Jesus Christ and his word and work; (ii) the world would not necessarily be lost if there were no Church; and (iii) the Church would be lost if it had no counterpart in the world. The ‘difference’ is the presence of Christ – ‘For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them’ (Matt 18:20).

With this theological horizon, and motivated by his conviction that God is still creating and calling the Church to participate in what is its ontological purpose for being, Donovan appeals for the people to “refound” the Church. His experience with the Masai, and what this experience has helped him to discover in Scripture, has clearly played a significant role in shaping his sense of creation’s direction. Writing out of a post-Vatican II context, he finds Scripture pointing to an ecclesiastical model with increased simplicity in its lifestyle, with less oppressive hierarchy, with less space between leaders and people at all levels, and with a keener awareness of the pressing needs of a close-by world. In his last chapter, he gives us a glimpse at how such a congregation could look. He also espouses an approach to evangelism whereby both parties are changed by God during their communicative interchange. It is with this awareness that he argues for “evangelization of culture” which includes genuinely mutual dialogue with the other major faiths of the world. His argument is interesting: that convert-making is geared to individuals and its success is measured numerically, when what is required is to evangelise the whole culture.

Unfortunately, he falls victim, I believe, to contemporary culture’s addiction to “new age” expectations. Citing as his gurus Sorokin, Rahner and Toffler, he argues that our time (written in 1989) is a time of significant change to the point where we are “an age in the process of breaking up”. His discussion is helpful in that he argues for the need for the Church to ‘grow-up’ to meet these changing conditions, but I wish that his grounding in Scripture reminded him that the new age is God’s gift in Christ and is not a pseudohistorical concept.

In light of this, NT Wright, in a discussion of Romans 9-11, offers some poignant insights into the Church’s ontological nature as that which issues from the Cross – that place/event which serves as the passionate concern of the Church, led by the Spirit, as the loving justice of God to all the world in real space and time. He writes,

And when the church really turns to face this task, as it must if it is to be true to its vocation, it will find (as Paul saw in 2 Corinthians particularly) that its role is Christ-shaped: to bear the pain and shame of the world in its own body, that the world may be healed. And with this we realize (in case it were not already apparent) that there is no room in this hermeneutic for a Christian or ecclesial triumphalism, which is precisely what Paul is opposing in Romans 11. The church is called to do and be for the world what the Messiah was and did for Israel … The church must find out the pain of the world, and must share it and bear it.

Another issue that is raised by Donovan, moreover, raises this issue of the Church community’s place in time and space. In other words, in what sense is the Church an eschatological community? Surely the Church is the community that is determined by its final destiny, the resurrection of the Incarnate Word-Son of God, Jesus Christ. The Church’s ‘now-life’ is lived in this realised sense as Christ’s presence in the Church and world is as the Coming or Last One, and it’s in this sense that his ministry is one of reconciliation, liberation and hope.

Karl Barth wrote that “We must understand that God is the measure of all reality and propriety, understand that eternity exists first and then time, and therefore the future first and then the present.” In this sense the Church is simultaneously the ‘kenotic community’ and the ‘ek-static community’. The ek-static dimension of the Church’s life is its orientation toward the ultimate destiny, by which it ‘stands out’ (ek-stasis) of its existence in solidarity with the world toward the source of its life and being in the Christ who is coming.

A brief story. Imagine that geese could talk, Kierkegaard once said, and that they arranged things so that they too could have their Church services and their worship:

Every Sunday they would assemble together and a gander would preach. The essential content of the sermon was the exalted destiny of the geese, the exalted goal for which the creator had destined geese (and every time his name was named all the geese curtsied and the ganders bowed their heads). With the help of their wings they could fly away to far countries, blessed countries, where they really were at home; for here they were just like exiles. And so every Sunday. Then the gathering broke up, and every goose waddles home. Then the next Sunday off they went to the service again, then home again. That was all. They throve and grew fat, they became plump and tender… that was all. For while the sermon sounded so exalted on Sundays, on Mondays they would tell one another of the fate of the goose who wanted to take his destiny seriously, with the help of the wings the creator had given it. And they spoke of the horrors it had to endure. But they prudently kept this knowledge among themselves. For, of course, to speak of it on Sundays was most unsuitable, for as they said, in that case it would be obvious that our service would be a mockery both of God and of ourselves. There were also among the geese some that looked ill and thin. Of them the others said, “You see, that’s what comes from being serious about wanting to fly. It is because they are always thinking of flying that they get thin and do not thrive, and do not have God’s grace as we do. That is why we get plump and fat and tender, for it is by God’s grace that one gets plump and fat and tender.

So it is with Christians, added Keirkegaard: they conclude that the domesticating grace of God is not meant to take seriously the wings of the Spirit, for to do so emaciates one’s well-being and destroys one’s peace as an earth-bound creature. Whereas, in fact, the wings are meant to be used – humans have Spirit, and thus are destined to live a transcendent life of ek-statis, the content of which is love.

5 thoughts on “A reflection on Vincent Donovan

  1. Pingback: You were in this place … but we never knew « Per Crucem ad Lucem

  2. For me Donovan majors on how God is to be found more outside conventional Christianity than within it. And that today’s Church has more to learn from those outside it than to teach them. Much more.

    By pointing this out with such clarity Donovan has reconciled me with my Catholicism. I pray for Vatican III.

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  3. I have been searching for the citation for this block quote:

    Every Sunday they would assemble together and a gander would preach. The essential content of the sermon was the exalted destiny of the geese, the exalted goal for which the creator had destined geese (and every time his name was named all the geese curtsied and the ganders bowed their heads). With the help of their wings they could fly away to far countries, blessed countries, where they really were at home; for here they were just like exiles. And so every Sunday. Then the gathering broke up, and every goose waddles home. Then the next Sunday off they went to the service again, then home again. That was all. They throve and grew fat, they became plump and tender… that was all. For while the sermon sounded so exalted on Sundays, on Mondays they would tell one another of the fate of the goose who wanted to take his destiny seriously, with the help of the wings the creator had given it. And they spoke of the horrors it had to endure. But they prudently kept this knowledge among themselves. For, of course, to speak of it on Sundays was most unsuitable, for as they said, in that case it would be obvious that our service would be a mockery both of God and of ourselves. There were also among the geese some that looked ill and thin. Of them the others said, “You see, that’s what comes from being serious about wanting to fly. It is because they are always thinking of flying that they get thin and do not thrive, and do not have God’s grace as we do. That is why we get plump and fat and tender, for it is by God’s grace that one gets plump and fat and tender.

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  4. Thank you. An opportunity to dialogue about The Church in the Midst of Creation is something I have been searching for since my brother, Vincent Donovan’s death on May 13,2000.

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  5. By chance I came across this writer and his books. I have known Vince D., in the 1950’s (Rome)and ’60’s (Africa). He had some of these ideas already at the time. I did not always agree, but I thought them always worth reflecting on; and above all, Vince was a good, warm and inviting priest with an open mind. By the way, Ms Nora Koren , are you by any chance related to Father Henri Koren, writer of books on The Spiritans, – a Dutchman who spent most of his days at Duquesne University?And where did Vincent die?
    Thanks for your answer, and cordial greetings,
    Joop Bekkers, Netherlands.

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