Nourishing an Impoverished Theology

Over at AUFS another lacerating post and comment thread has been levelled against possible symptomatic trends in theology that divert attention from the ‘flesh and blood’ powers that actually affect people (the target this time is a post by Ben Myers).  I particularly appreciate the description of powers as flesh and blood.  I am becoming increasingly convinced of the need to teach and demonstrate the practice of description, a phenomenology of sorts.  This position is not incompatible with a discursive interpretation of situations but it demands an account of how discourse is constructed.  If we move simply from discourse to discourse we begin trading in unreliable fictions which is how I understand APS’s critique of Myers’s post.  This was a feeling I also got from Myers’s earlier post on writing.  The sentiments were pleasantly structured but they never seemed to ‘touch down’ (this of course being a personal response unformulated as a criticism at the time).  I suspect I am entering theoretical waters I am unable to swim in but I want to work out at least this thought.

What we are doing in theology or any other discipline or perspective may be the manufacturing, editing and recycling of discourses but this does not mean there is no evaluation and no resources outside of discourse.  The trouble with theology tends to be something like a multi-layered discourse on incarnation without someone’s flesh touching fire, experiencing ecstasy, or willfully sacrificing.  In this way theological discourse becomes a layering and protecting of nothing; and so an engagement with nothing but postures and prose.  APS called Myers out on this and demanded that if he look (at least in Europe) one will find matters quit to the contrary.  Theologians do indeed need to step back and simply look at what is going on around them and describe it, not as though they will arrive at some homogenous neutral view but that they become engaged in flesh and blood.  And here APS’s response also falls short (as all descriptions do).  In his description there is no account for ‘progress’ under right-wing policy.  If someone would come to Winnipeg’s West End and ask about Harry Lehotsky you would soon be inundated with stories of man whose vision of dignity and quality of life for a forsaken community changed countless lives and all this based on a right-wing approach to government and economics that was the result of repeated frustrations with left-wing approaches to social support.  In this description I make no meta claims about economics only that a man engaged the flesh and blood powers of oppression found tools more readily available under a right-wing government (this description of course needs to be contextualized within the Canadian context and historical which greatly affects its possible transferability).  In any event I struggle with over the top claims like the ones made by APS.  I take them to heart as a theologian or Christian (as I have become increasingly grateful for the overall contribution many of the folks at AUFS make) because they are needed but then his post must be further problematized or at least nuanced because of the varied stories of engagement.  An apparent global perspective does not trump and cannot trump a local engagement with flesh and blood.  This, again, should not be read as an attempt to overturn APS’s post but simply to add description which may allow resonance with others for getting on in the task of ‘progress’.

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2 thoughts on “Nourishing an Impoverished Theology

  1. I don’t doubt that people who hold to right-wing ideology can do concrete good. I also don’t doubt that people who claim to be left-wing can do concrete ill. The thing that should be prized about the left-wing approach to politics is best summed up by a quote from the late Archbishop Camara: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Left-wing discourse also asks after the real cause of oppression, about the structures that require change, rather than performing charity alone. So, for instance, Gideon Osbourne was recently asked if he would reconsider the massive cuts his office plans to make if they were to lead to a worse economic situation and more inequality. His response was that he wouldn’t, but would “reaffirm the cuts”.

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  2. I find your initial distinction interesting whether or not it was intentional. People who hold to right-wing ideology can do good while people who claim to be left-wing can do ill. Is there something to that distinction? Because that is a bit of what I was trying to get at. I read your distinction implying that true left-wing ideology (or thinking) will inherently benefit society.
    The reason I brought up Lehotsky is that while a policy or structure may appear from one perspective to hinder social support (i.e. removing particular governmental supports) it may be possible for this policy to free non-governmental agencies (perhaps through various tax breaks and incentives) to perform real social and structural change within a given local community, perhaps even at a level that ‘welfare’ could not. The crux in this situation was real people sacrificing and working for the sake of the community using the resources available to them.
    I offer this only because I have first hand experience with it, again, not because I think this case represents other situations. But it does call into question the view that only left-wing thinking addresses structural change or asks the questions of why. You can perhaps say that generally it holds true but why is there the need? Can’t we simply go about the task of particular engagement without limiting ahead of time the means by which that progress can occur? Perhaps there is something more appropriate than the label ‘right-wing’ that can address and more accurately describe the situations you are addressing. I should also say that I have no reason to believe that the description from your context holds true . . . I am almost entirely ignorant of it.
    I am definitely open to a revision of my position but as you advocate for it comes from a flesh and blood engagement so I don’t want to loosen the grip too quickly.

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