Reformation and Secularity

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Recently, I was invited to give a paper to the University of Divinity’s Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy. The event was billed as ‘Luther, Protestantism and Society’, and was a low-key way to mark Reformation Day. There was, however, no beer to be found, and so the event was always going to struggle to be true to character.

There were, however, four speakers. Monica Melanchthon (Pilgrim College) spoke on ‘Luther, Bible, and Gender’, focusing especially on Luther’s exegesis of Genesis 38. Gordon Preece (Director of RASP) spoke on ‘Luther, Vocation, and Precarious Work’, and Andreas Loewe (Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) spoke about ‘Luther, Music, and Bach’.

I offered some reflections also, abbreviating parts of a larger project that I’ve been working on. A published version of the paper will appear soon, but here’s a little section:

 

For most of its life, Western forms of Christianity have not heeded the words of the Hebrew prophets to be a sanctuary unescorted by borders or bullets. Nor have they placed much store in the warning carried in the words ‘… crucified under Pontius Pilate’. Instead, they have been made inebriate by drinking from the same wells of imperialism that created the empires of Egypt, Assyria, and the United States.

Signs that the keg may be running a little low occasions another opportunity for Protestant communions to dissent from all ‘stupid allegiance to political authority as if that were service to the church and, a fortiori, to God’ (William Stringfellow), and to embrace instead what Davis McCaughey called a ‘transitory character’. Without minimizing Christendom’s remarkable achievements, it seems judicious, imperative, and overdue for those traditions forged under its assumptions, atmosphere, and protection to undergo appraisal. This, as John de Gruchy rightly reminds us, does not mean ‘adopting a politically neutral stance or eschewing the responsible use of power’. Indeed, a project like the Reformed’s is, after all, essentially public and acutely concerned for the public commons. ‘The question is not’, therefore, ‘whether the church is going to use political influence, but how, on behalf of whom, and from what perspective it is going to do so. Is [such influence] going to be used “to preserve the social prestige which comes from its ties to the groups in power or to free itself from the prestige with a break from these groups and with genuine service to the oppressed”?’

For those who hanker after a secure life, a kind of invulnerable area in the world, the Word of God holds out no promise, no escape, no counterfeit security, no withdrawal from the actualities, ambiguities, uncertainties, and instabilities of human life. The idolatry of certainty – whether cultural, political, or intellectual – signals ‘a withdrawal from accepting the peril and the promise of the Incarnation’; namely, the call to live ‘an exposed life’ before God, one ‘stripped of the kind of security that tradition, whether ecclesiological or institutional, easily bestows’ (Donald MacKinnon). This is the church’s atypical and baffling existence. It also goes by another word – ‘discipleship’. It was this direction towards which a young Lutheran by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was looking when in London in the early 1930s he preached that:

Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its apologia for the weak … Christendom has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offence, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should … take a stronger much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong.

During his first American tour, Bonhoeffer spoke also of a church ‘beyond religion’. While his now-famous wrestlings with the question of a ‘religionless Christianity’ and of ‘interpreting biblical concepts nonreligiously’ seem to have had their main geneses in Karl Barth’s theological critique of religion, it is clear that Bonhoeffer was pressing beyond Barth towards something more as-yet unknown. Neither an ‘extra’ to the normalities of human existence nor a ‘stopgap’ for when we have reached ‘the limits of our possibilities’, Bonhoeffer’s God is fully present in all of life’s ‘polyphonic’ dimensions. ‘We cannot, like the Roman Catholics’, Bonhoeffer said, ‘simply identify ourselves with the church’. For ‘Jesus calls not to a new religion but to life’, the content of which is a participation in God’s powerlessness in and suffering ‘at the hands of a godless world’.

Bonhoeffer’s is a call to reject the claim that ecclesiocentricity and its institutional permanence are necessary in order to make the world coherent. He rejects, in other words, the myth that the church is the telos of world history wherein ‘the whole space at one’s disposal is filled with ecclesiology’, and where ‘the world has disappeared from the horizon’ (J. C. Hoekendijk). He rejects, therefore, a church turned in upon itself (ecclesia in se incurvata) and so the reduction of mission to proselytism into particular cultural forms.

Here we come to modern Protestantism’s failure to know why it exists anymore. As a commentator noted in The Washington Post just last week, ‘Protestantism has become an end in itself … The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share’. Bonhoeffer did not make this misjudgement. Firstly, because he had no problem with saying the third article of any ecumenical creed. He refused, in other words, to not hope for and work towards the genuine and international unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. And secondly, because in his terms: ‘The church is church only when it is there for others … The church’, he wrote, ‘must participate in the worldly tasks of life in the community – not dominating but helping and serving’. This refrain found echo in the World Council of Churches’ report, published in 1967 as The Church for Others and the Church for the World. The report grappled with the perception of a growing secularization in the West, pleading that the Church not discern in its ‘change of social function’ a ‘loss or emigration from society’ lest it understand mission to be ‘a counter-attack to restore’ Christendom. It argued also that we might be wisest to consider the possibility that secularisation might in fact be ‘a fruit of the gospel’, and a much-welcomed invitation to seek traces of Christ’s transforming work ‘outside the walls of the Church’ and among those ‘who may have little or no connexion with the churches as they are today’.

Brad Gregory’s long threnody for medieval Christianity masks an unwillingness to consider that, however unintended they may have been, the liberalising consequences of the reformers’ congeniality with what we today might call ‘secularity’ was a deliberate theological move. It was a move birthed of the instinct that the hegemony of the ecclesia meets its counter story in the truly catholic authority of the free and freeing Word who ‘came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (Jn 1.13).

 

Some Recent Watering Holes

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Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source

 

I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:

And this:

On damaging and defending public property (in Hobsons Bay)

IMG_5614.jpgCall me ‘old school’, but I’m really not very tolerant when it comes to damaging public property. Places such as parks, public libraries, schools, rivers, parliaments, etc. are, in my view, sacrosanct, and when such places undergo vandalism the damage is done to us all. More specifically, when such damage is undertaken for the economic gain of a few, there really can be no acceptable defence at all.

The assumption here, of course, is that there really is such a reality called ‘public’, and that such a reality requires such things as ‘public spaces’, and that there is an obligation upon the public to honour such spaces. (For the purposes of this post I will not explore this matter further here.)

It is entirely unacceptable, therefore, for commercial enterprises to destroy public property. One way that this is happening is by such enterprises securing their signage to our footpaths. In the area near my home, which is in Melbourne’s Hobson’s Bay region, real estate businesses such as Williams Real Estate, Gunn & Co. and others, repeatedly screw their signage into the footpath, indifferent to the destruction done.

Rather than remove the screws – which would, in my view, be a publicly-responsible action to undertake – I have thus far taken the less aggressive route of writing, on a number of occasions now, to the Hobsons Bay City Council about this matter, and included documentary evidence to support my complaint. Thus far, they have been polite and responsive, and I have been assured that a ‘relevant officer’ has been assigned to investigate the complaints. I don’t know what the outcome has been, but I do notice that the vandalism is still happening, that the boards continue to be erected upon and secured to the footpath. (That the footpaths in my area in already in poor form is hardly the point.)

The Council’s ‘Community Signboards Policy’ stipulates that not-for-profit community groups who wish to erect temporary signs to promote community events must ensure that ‘the physical and visual amenity on the natural and built environment’ is maintained, and that such signs are not allowed to ‘damage Council infrastructure’. And yet when it comes to commercial ventures, it appears that no such rule exists. Why?

A Council that judges graffiti to be ‘vandalism, “wilful damage” and a criminal offence’ ought, in my view, to not only be fining such real estate agents in order to repair the damage done, but also pursuing legal action against them for vandalism and wilful damage. (For the record, I do not share Council’s judgement about graffiti, for I believe that graffiti can be a way of honouring public space. But that discussion too is for another post. Neither am I suggesting that this matter ought to be a priority for Council. In the scheme of things, it’s a relatively small matter indeed.)

And here endeth my wee rant.

 

Democracy, responsible citizenship, and the politics of resistance

the-ethics-of-authenticity‘Because the only effective counter to the drift towards atomism and instrumentalism built into market and bureaucratic state is the formation of an effective common purpose through democratic action, fragmentation in fact disables us from resisting this drift. To lose the capacity to build politically effective majorities is to lose your paddle in mid-river. You are carried in eluctably downstream, which here means further and further into a culture enframed by atomism and instrumentalism.

The politics of resistance is the politics of democratic will-formation. As against those adversaries of technological civilization who have felt drawn to an elitist stance, we must see that a serious attempt to engage in the cultural struggle of our time requires the promotion of a politics of democratic empowerment. The political attempt to re-enframe technology crucially involves resisting and reversing fragmentation.

But how do you fight fragmentation? It’s not easy, and there are no universal prescriptions. It depends very much on the particular situation. But fragmentation grows to the extent that people no longer identify with their political community, that their sense of corporate belonging is transferred elsewhere or atrophies altogether. And it is fed, too, by the experience of political powerlessness. And these two developments mutually reinforce each other. A fading political identity makes it harder to mobilize effectively, and a sense of helplessness breeds alienation. There is a potential vicious circle here, but we can see how it could also be a virtuous circle. Successful common action can bring a sense of empowerment and also strengthen identification with the political community.

This sounds like saying that the way to succeed here is to succeed, which is true if perhaps unhelpful. But we can say a little more. One of the important sources of the sense of powerlessness is that we are governed by large scale, centralized, bureaucratic states. What can help mitigate this sense is decentralisation of power, as Tocqueville saw. And so in general devolution, or a division of power, as in a federal system, particularly one based on the principle of subsidiarity, can be good for democratic empowerment. And this is the more so if the units to which power is devolved already figure as communities in the lives of their members.

In this respect, Canada has been fortunate. We have had a federal system, which has been prevented from evolving towards greater centralization on the model of the United States by our very diversity, while the provincial units generally correspond with regional societies with which their members identify. What we seem to have failed to do is create a common understanding that can hold these regional societies together, and so we face the prospect of another kind of loss of power, not that we experience when big government seems utterly unresponsive, but rather the fate of smaller societies living in the shadow of major powers.

This has ultimately been a failure to understand and accept the real nature of Canadian diversity. Canadians have been very good at accepting their own images of difference, but these have tragically failed to correspond to what is really there . It is perhaps not an accident that this failure comes just when an important feature of the American model begins to take hold in this country, in the form of judicial review around a charter of rights. In fact, it can be argued that the insistence on uniform application of a charter that had become one of the symbols of Canadian citizenship was an important cause of the demise of the Meech Lake agreement, and hence of the impending break-up of the country.

But the general point I want to draw from this is the interweaving of the different strands of concern about modernity. The effective re-enframing of technology requires common political action to reverse the drift that market and bureaucratic state engender towards greater atomism and instrumentalism. And this common action requires that we overcome fragmentation and powerlessness – that is, that we address the worry that Tocqueville first defined, the slide in democracy towards tutelary power. At the same time, atomist and instrumentalist stances are prime generating factors of the more debased and shallow modes of authenticity, and so a vigorous democratic life, engaged in a project of re-enframing, would also have a positive impact here.

What our situation seems to call for is a complex, many-levelled struggle, intellectual, spiritual, and political, in which the debates in the public arena interlink with those in a host of institutional settings, like hospitals and schools, where the issues of enframing technology are being lived through in concrete form; and where these disputes in turn both feed and are fed by the various attempts to define in theoretical terms the place of technology and the demands of authenticity, and beyond that, the shape of human life and its relation to the cosmos.

But to engage effectively in this many-faceted debate, one has to see what is great in the culture of modernity, as well as what is shallow or dangerous. As Pascal said about human beings, modernity is characterized by grandeur as well as by misère. Only a view that embraces both can give us the undistorted insight into our era that we need to rise to its greatest challenge’.

– Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity

Thoughts in the Presence of Fear

What Wendell said.