The Gift of Difference – Part II – Review of the Parts

In Part I I addressed some of the shortfalls of the overall project while affirming what was perhaps the inevitable ‘shortfall’ of  the two dialogue camps.  Putting aside any larger intentions of this collection the chapters themselves maintained a steady offering of what it means to “to be differently ethical and differently political” (5) without falling into prescribed and caricatured notions of ‘purist’ or ‘compromised’ faith. I will touch on a number of the chapters but offer more sustained engagement with the chapters by York and Dula.

The first two chapters highlight the movements, tensions and unresolved thinking represented within the book.  In chapter one Peter Blum draws out a Derridean account of a metaphysics of violence as actually offering a greater possibility of peaceful practice as opposed to Milbank’s ontology of peace which, with Derrida, also assumes the inevitability of violence in the present and so its discerning use on the part of the Church for the purpose of peace (for more on Blum see here).  Then in chapter two the positions are flipped as Kevin Derksen accepts Milbank’s critique of Derrida and illustrates it in showing that even in offering our death (Derrida’s Gift of Death) this act “paradoxically reinscribes itself as the moment of purest ownership” (31).  In light of the resurrection even the sacrifice of life must discerned and not given in its ethical value.  This critique is then leveled against certain Mennonite accounts which seem to make peace a stable category from which other theological claims can be made.  These chapters set the tone for the book.  This will not be for or against the two traditions but simply difference, engaged and explored.

Tripp York’s “The Ballad of John and Anneken” was the most clear and straightforward account posing the simple question, “Does [Milbank] deliver an account of witness that is capable of producing witnesses” (53)?  York questions Milbank’s discriminate use of violence as simply re-framing the often used ‘myth of redemptive violence.’  York calls for a rise in ‘witnesses’ if Milbank’s work is to gain any lasting traction.  Where even is the witness of the life of Jesus in his account?  Where are the stories that flow from and reflect his ontology?  York introduces the witness of Anneken Heyndricks from the Martyrs’ Mirror.  Anneken was to be burned at the stake for heresy.  At her questioning she did not recant though neither did she curse those around her but blessed and gave thanks.  York says, “such a story represents the faithful who, rather than accepting tragedy by conceding its viability, absorb tragedy as Christ-absorbed evil” (64).  It does not pass through her life onto others but ends with her though she does not end, as the resurrection promises.  York then asks how Milbank might respond with such an account and then adds with some bite, “Were [the civil and ecclesial authorities] not practicing dominium, and, therefore, both extending and preserving the social harmony for the good of the commonwealth” (64-65)?  And further with, well, a little more than bite, “Though Milbank is not here talking about ecumenical disagreements, as charitable as I would like to be, I fear Milbank’s theology would have easily been placed in the service of ecclesiastical forces that would have resulted in a number of writers in this volume, had they lived centuries ago, being burned at the stake” (65).  Snap.

New for me was Peter Dula’s account of “Fugitive Ecclesia” that develops Sheldon Wolin’s Fugitive Democracy.  It is worth citing Dula’s initial quote of Wolin in full,

I shall take the political to be an expression of the idea that a free society composed of diversities can nonetheless enjoy moments of commonality when, through public deliberations, collective power is used to promote or protect the well being of the collectivity.  Politics refers to the legitimized public contestation, primarily by organized and unequal social powers, over access to the resources available to the public authorities of the collectivity.  Politics is continuous, ceaseless, and endless.  In contrast, the political is episodic, rare (104).

I take the political expressed here to be those ‘moments’ when motivated, intentional figures also have the stars align allowing for something to happen.  “[T]heir power sprang from grassroots . . . they were not political actors coming together but individuals formed into political actors through their common deliberation” (105).  The question Dula asks is whether the church as it is conceived in theologians such as Milbank, Hauerwas, Bell, Cavanaugh, and Yoder is actually best described as a type of ‘fugitive ecclesial,’  that is a church that for the most part does not actually exist as it is called but for moments does exist as such.  If this is the case why are they not more up front about it and what then does this mean for the church in the mean time if in fact the church remains episodic, rare?  It seems necessary for these theologians to travel back to some pure conception and expression of the church while remaining at the point of despair with regards to the contemporary western church.  This leads to the further question of whether or not there is some external some actual alternative to the structure of late-modern capitalism (or whatever else our state might be characterized as).  Is there any longer space for the political in the midst of our current ongoing politics?  The prospects, as Dula sees them, are not particularly hopeful.  He offers six.

  • We can accept a fugitive ecclesial and “celebrate the moments of fugitivity rather than mourn that that is all there is” (124).
  • We can turn to being more ‘realistic’ acknowledging that our condition robs ‘us of some possibilities of faithfulness” (124).
  • We can, with Barth, relieve the church of so much responsibility and place it on Christ making ecclesial defenselessness possible.
  • We can, with Hauerwas, acknowledge that we lack necessary skills and remain blinded to what we are called to, but hopeful that we can perhaps learn.
  • We can become more open to what is going on outside of the church.  “If it is true that we need to try harder, then outsiders may be able to teach us how” (126).

The sixth option appears to be Dula’s own offering,

[F]ugitive ecclesia could also create the space for a renewed attention to friendship.  If the church is as rare as these theologians think, then all their reflections on the church, while important, also make room for greater attention to pairs instead of communities.  We may even want to revive the long discredited epithet ‘organized religion.’  It may suggest all we can hope for is the occasional intimacy of two or three (127).

This is an intriguing offering.  It at once calls up the criticism of those fighting to change the structure but the question becomes whether this offering is from those who have been worked through the structure and understand it as perhaps one of the only alternatives left, and a theologically faithful one at that.

I will not continue reviewing each chapter at such length.  The former chapters (especially York and Dula) strike me as the most suggestive and also, potentially, the most constructive.  That being said many of the other articles offer helpful nuance to long established debates.  Such is the case with Long’s article “Desire and Theological Politics.”  Long argues that violence is as much about the desire for non-violence as it is about greed or power.  In addition to suppressing violent acts pacifism has also tended to suppress the desire that may have motivated the act, a desire that may indeed have been godly.  And I will leave it up to someone more qualified to engage with Pauls’ chapter “Harmony in Exile: Rest in its Embers” which uses Berio’s sequenza IV (for piano, 1996) as a mode of understanding Radical Orthodoxy’s theological and liturgical aesthetic.  The language in this chapter was highly evocative but slightly too technical in musical theory for me to fully grasp the force and implications of her work.

As I stated in part I this book is not constructing some theological or ecclesial project.  It is however engaging in a hopeful practice.  It is a practice that does not believe one’s tradition has the corner on a given expression, or even fully understands said expression.  It is a practice that believes that learning may in fact be possible across traditions even if that learning means that you maintain or strengthen your opposition to another tradition.  It is also a practice that has no interest in overcoming another tradition through rhetorical force but allows expressions to have their own say and persuasion.  I would conclude that these are good practices for our time and place.


3 thoughts on “The Gift of Difference – Part II – Review of the Parts

    1. I think that the work was solicited. As I mentioned in the first post a couple of the pieces seem a little over-worked so that they could fit the theme (others also explicitly cited where their work had appeared earlier).


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