Testifying against theological imagination

The following is a tangential contribution to the conversations around topics of gender, theology, and ontology (and for those on Facebook see the conversations at The Theology Studio group).  I typically don’t have the intellectual resources to fully engage in the critique of ideas on their own terms so I offer the following as a testimony against a particular theological formation.

I am sometimes at a loss in how to respond towards people wanting ‘proof’ that their theology/theory is misguided or dangerous.  When it comes to the current conversation around the role of theology as a practice in-and-for-the-church, with its potentially self-authorizing ‘ontology’ I am coming to see that my most incisive response is one of personal testimony.  So if you have interest in this conversation (and I think it is an important one) or just want to do some online lurking then bear me out.

It is easy to fill in the blanks of my childhood.  Grew up in a small town that was religiously conservative (southern Manitoba).  I was a straight white male, only son, culturally above average intelligence, physicality attending to the favoured local pursuits.  Blah, blah, blah . . . and there I was graduating high school fully formed in Blinded Privilege.  I spent a good part of my first year out of high school volunteering in California (flood relief).  When there I took a trip into the Big City, downtown San Francisco.  I was moved, affected, by some relatively visceral images (for a country mouse) of poverty.  These images formed an orientation, a concern for why some people suffered and others did not.  I was also quite zealous and active in my church and faith and began attending Bible college.  I was informally introduced to strands of liberation theology and its ability to re-orient the Bible and the gospel towards the concerns and realities of those suffering.

As I became more interested and invested in theological pursuits I caught the wave of ecclesial upward mobility happening in the late 90s (at least that was when I experienced it).  I started attending an Anglican church and took a course in Anglican theology.  In retrospect something decisive happened during this time.  My priest was eloquent and intellectual.  He was able to incorporate a range of theorists, authors, and poets into his sermons and talks.  I began learning about the grand liturgical imagination that the ‘higher’ church forms offered.  Theology was quickly becoming an expansive reality in how it was able to engage the world.  In my course on Anglican theology I read Oliver O’Donovan who criticized the Southern School (liberation theology) because it “fails to recognize the inspiration of the movement, which has been to take up the cause of the poor as a theologically given mandate.”  In other words, I was not able to trust the authority of my experience of the poor but had to be sure it was authorized in a prior theological framework otherwise it was doomed to “conform to the historical dialectic of idealism.”  This would lead to the empty vacuum of endless and contentless criticism.  Well!  I did not want that.  Then read I John Milbank and the enchanting words inviting us to consider the time when there was no secular.  Secularism has attempted to police the boundaries of the divine, assuming a position of being able to adjudicate and position religions.  I read that there are times when prior theological commitments will lead simply to an ‘incommensurable impasse in dialogue.’  You simply cannot talk with some people.  Or more specifically you cannot trust secular discourses because they are perversions, parodies of theological truths.  I was ushered into another world, another imagination.  Within that imagination things like the liturgical year and most of all the Eucharist took on all but magical properties.  The Eucharist was now the site for resolving things like social injustice (Cavanaugh) and even trauma (Marcus Pound).  I began focusing my creative and professional/pastoral energies around considering this new found power.

This exposure to a new and ever-expanding theological imagination led me to the conclusion that the meaning of life is worship.  Now, to be up front I still more or less maintain this basic articulation but it has come to mean something almost entirely different.  In any event, this was literally a  climax.  I felt enlightened, at peace within.  And then something changed.  A significant shift in influences and engagement surfaced.  Not the least of these influences was a sustained if somewhat tragic engagement in the theo-blogosphere, back in its hay-day a few years ago (those were heady times).  I tried exploring and pushing back at some of the contributions made at AUFS.  My initial criticisms were quite misguided in general but it opened myself up to engage with their own broad critique of theology.  Some of the basic charges laid against my thinking was that it was essentially ideological, in the sense that I was working from an internal logic that someone needed to accept ahead of time in order to participate legitimately.  For instance my concept of worship was only coherent when someone also accepted my basic understanding of how God works in the world, which is through the practices and imagination of the church.  Those who would not ascribe to this view were necessarily false or suspect in my articulation.

Around this time I was also reading through Kierkegaard’s published works and two thoughts stood out.  First, Kierkegaard at one point considers the Christian position valid only if it is able to face squarely or non-evasively the forms and expressions of thought in the world.  That is, it does not preemptively structure the thought it encounters.  It is affected by external thought and experience.  And, in another place (I think it is in Stages) notwithstanding or perhaps precisely because of Kierkegaard’s obsession with transcendence Kierkegaard understands clearly that to think is to think immanence.  There must be an attending to the network of relations and not the importing of self-authorizing judgment.

These influences, as well others, became a sort of watershed.  I could have remained committed to a particular project and articulation of orthodoxy but I could not do this in good conscience re-entrench because the critique of my expression simply fit.  I was not engaging the world, I was simply projecting.  In this way I am coming to consider quite a wide swath of what would be considered Orthodoxy (my experience is primarily in the Anglican form of this) as potentially harmful.

In this way I have become more appreciative of what Philip Goodchild (often evoking Simone Weil) would call attention as opposed to imagination (simply contrasted reception/projection, formed in relation/formed in mind, finite/infinitely persistent).  This is also not unlike how I have been influenced by the work and resources of Dan Barber in attempting to think immanence.  This has left me in a precarious position in relation to my profession and faith.  I still attend to what I would call transcendent concerns and possibilities but I no longer feel able to project such realities as meaning into the world, or at least I try to be much more mindful of how and when I do that.  I attempt to practice the discipline of allowing myself to affected by the modes and forms of thought around me so that whatever position I come to it is formed in relation to more concrete expressions.

The result of this shift has opened up an entirely new (from my experience) way of engaging what some of my initial and formative concerns around suffering and inequality led me towards.  It was, at least in part, a particular theological imagination that began to demand a prior accounting of what was valid and even what ‘suffering’ or at least what ‘inequality’ really was.  I am now much interested in attending to the spaces and flows of how cultural, material, political, economic, etc., power effect certain segments of the world.  The hope is that through this attention and mutual affection there can emerge the work and thought necessary for flows of new life, hell, re-birth.

To come full circle I offer this as a testimony of how a particular mode of theological imagination actually de-railed me from initial concerns of how to be faithful to the gospel message towards those experiencing bondage.  I was wooed into being faithful in worship to a transcendent God who it so happened also offered a structure of meaning and perspective that rendered anything outside of the church suspect, while also being able to consider itself vulnerable before the transformation of this God.  A theology that was earnest in its confidence to out-narrate.

This is my single testimony offered for those who may want to re-consider their theological orientation.

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10 thoughts on “Testifying against theological imagination

  1. We must “squarely or non-evasively” face “the forms and expressions of thought in the world.” Couldn’t agree more. This is exactly where I struggle with Milbank, Bentley Hart, and others of the Anglican/high-church ilk; they seem to circumscribe secular thought precisely in order to evade. Your final paragraph names the problem well: how can we really consider ourselves vulnerable before God while rendering everything outside the bounds of church/liturgy/worship suspect?

    And yet I think the way forward has everything to do with conversion and only a little to do with the ‘type’ of theology being done. You seem to suggest that certain conversations are no longer compelling for you, but I’m not sure which ones. Specifically, you’re responding to the current gender discussions over at the Theology Studio, right? If so, how do you think this relates? In a comment on their facebook page, someone writes: “Mary, absolutely the model for theologians. It makes perfect sense to me that Coakley doesn’t separate systematic theology from a self-dispossessive practice.” I like this. I imagine Karl Barth had a fantastic practice of attention to the suffering of the world, and his writing was part of his response. Are you comfortable with that suggestion, or do you think that certain practices of attention will lead to less systematic theologies?

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    1. I suppose I am working off experience here but at this point I would say ‘type’ of theology is still quite important. I do need to qualify this because I find Rowan Williams (at least his older stuff in On Christian Theology) still fairly compelling in his engagement. I am not sure it is possible to outline precisely the ‘type’ that I am referring to but it does come down in large part (for me) to how notions of transcendence (as self-authorizing presence) get leveraged in conversation. I am simply trying to follow through on the idea of ‘thinking immanence’ and see where that leads, as I find it more promising.
      I can’t really speak about Barth. Some people whose work I respect hate him while other people whose work I respect love him. I simply have not engaged him enough to have a position. I should also point out that I don’t want to pin-down every contributor to Theology Studio as holding the target I am aiming at, however the conversation and certain ‘resistances’ to engaging the issues around gender in particular remind me of this larger question.

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  2. Your post reminds me of a truth that’s become increasingly clear to me as I’ve been preaching through some of the OT narratives: we are continuously tempted to idolatry; in this case, intellectual foundationalism. We’d rather not be vulnerably open to each situation, to every interlocutor, etc… Your ‘testimony’ is an important challenge. Thank you David.

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  3. When you write:
    ” … while also being able to consider itself vulnerable before the transformation of this God”,

    I am instantly reminded of Williams’ and Loughlin’s consideration of the Trinity as providing theology with a route / bedrock of humility when it comes to narrating our own positions – the difficulty of defining or settling the Trinity provides up with an example that nothing (not even our own theological understandings) can be resolutely and absolutely final.

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  4. Hi Dave,

    I write as someone who knew you when you attended that Anglican church and as one of the people who perhaps introduced you to it. I am not going to question your impressions of that church and the theology it espoused because that was your experience and I am not going to deny you that; my experience of that church was, at the time, quite similar, although my response has been quite different. I do, however, want to say some things about Milbank and co. because I think you and some of the others who have posted here run the risk of misrepresenting him and the radically orthodox perspective. From my understanding Milbank, Graham Ward, and Catherine Pickstock, and other radically orthodox theologians are attempting to correct what they perceive as being a profound cultural amnesia wherein many in the West have lost their moorings in the founding myth of our culture and society, namely Christianity. Their various attempts to engage modern critical scholarship have not been in the name of evasion, but rather engagement, as Milbank’s recent and ongoing conversations with Zizek attest. In his recent book Being Reconciled, Milbank says some very provocative things about gender, implying that there might be justifications for same sex unions within the context of medieval Christian thought. Similarly, when I was a student at Manchester and came to know Graham Ward in that context, Graham was very interested in gender, and has written in Cities of God that he believes same sex unions should be blessed. I therefore think you need to be careful when stating that for such thinkers there is nothing outside the tradition. In one sense this is true, because such thinkers are attempting to demonstrate that much of modern critical theory can be shown to have its roots in medieval Catholic thought. However, we may also state that Milbank, Ward, and Picstock are working very hard to bring what they understand to be orthodox Christian theology into conversation with modern critical theory. And, unless I have read them wrongly, their concern is overtly pastoral, and overtly with correcting power imbalances that have been perpetrated by the church. They may be unapologetically Christian in doing so, but I think they are right to draw our attention to where we have come from. A culture that does not know its roots will not be able to move forward successfully, as our numerous contemporary crises adequately demonstrate. For my own attempts to rectify some of these problems you can read my reflections on ecclesiametrabbanan.blogspot.ca. I would be more than happy to be included in this larger discussion.

    Simon

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  5. Dave, I have also become quite critical of some of my own theological imagination, as you put it. You and I both are trying to take seriously the claims of voices at AUFS, especially Barber’s work on immanence (and fabulation, for me at least, is an important concept) while also taking seriously the Lordship of Christ we profess and the ecclesia that assembles around such a proclamation (i.e. the importance of the church as the body of Christ in the world that we inherited through theologies like Yoder’s, etc.). I have found some parts of process theology helpful in this regard but there I also find problems. I think where I am right now I want to push us to think transcendence immanently. What I mean is this: part of the critique of theology against immanence (or even orthodox theologies against process theology) is that it reduces God to the same, conflates God with creation, such that God is no longer other. To paraphrase Whitehead: It is true to say that God is immanent to the world and that the world is immanent to God; it is true to say that God transcends the world and that the world transcends God; it is true to say that God creates the world and the world creates God.” Now, you can see, especially in this last line, why a critique of conflating God and creation comes forth, or why theology and religion and Christianity itself suddenly becomes a purely anthropological endeavour. So I’m wondering if we can’t tweak this a bit, or understand these claims a different way. Can we think transcendence, God’s otherness immanently? I mean, isn’t it only when we think that creation is somehow phenomenologically apparent to us, that we can and do appropriate everything that is creation (because we are creatures), that we must think of God’s otherness, the creator’s otherness as wholly other than creation? But haven’t we learned from Derrida and other post-modern/deconstruction philosophy that the world, creation, is not immediately apparent to us? That creation, the world, itself is excessive? Isn’t the positing of transcendence as wholly other in space and time a philosophical problem? To think transcendence immanently, for me, suggests that we can think of God’s transcendence, God’s otherness, as the excessiveness of creation itself. If we hold that creation exists here and now because God is working here and now (to paraphrase Rowan Williams) then can we not, no, must we not also affirm that creation itself is the excessiveness, the surplus of God, of Love? In short, I have come to think of God’s otherness, God’s transcendence, as the immanent excess of creation. Surely God’s generosity, God’s grace, the effect of which is creation, is excessive. Surely there are not limits on what God can and does do in creation – the transformation of the world, the new creation! If not, we could just re-inscribe a clock-maker narrative of creation which completely rejects that God works in the world at all.

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    1. Thanks for that Melanie. I could only put tentative gestures forward on these questions. I am mostly interested in a posture of attention to locality, relatedness, and affectiveness in thought and life and sort of seeing what comes (and this means, among other things, to our faith community). At this point I can’t think of how I could go about offering a constructive or speculative account in moving forward in this with a substantive account. At this point I only see myself, in this setting, offering very occasional or responsive accounts. Of course I have to also attend to what I am articulating through my profession and leadership in the church. . . . in that I am trying not to be a complete hypocrite!

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  6. Simon,
    Perhaps put most simply I would argue that ecclesial upward mobility is based largely around a desire to inhabit its theological/liturgical imagination. And my criticism is that there is not only a temptation here but likely a cost to the degree that someone is interested in that habitation. I am grossly simplifying but I don’t think it is without warrant.

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    1. I think your assessment is right. Ecclesial upward mobility has to be based on a desire to inhabit its theological/liturgical imagination. Part of what church is about, in my understanding, is being faithful to the tradition, while seeking to move the tradition forward. For me this concern with tradition has to be foundational in any church context, in that the church should not have to apologize for who and what it is. It does need to apologize for many actions and decisions that have been made in the past that have brought about great harm in the lives of many individuals and people groups. But I believe the Church has to be the Church. Now this will look different for different denominations and congregations, but I believe the Church’s identity should not be sacrificed. Now if someone chooses not to engage with that identity, that does not mean that dialogue must cease. Quite the opposite. Dialogue must increase. Part of Christian identity is the promotion of health, hope, and healing in the lives of all human beings. If that can be done inside the Church, good. If it can be done without the institutional support of Church infrastructure, that is good too. From my perspective the great commission was given for the making of disciples, not converts. And how do we recognize who is a disciple? By seeing the activity of God in their lives no matter their beliefs or religious affiliation. To me that is really good news, if not the core of the gospel message. Thoughts?

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  7. Thanks for this, David. I frequently find myself in a similar place. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I’m no longer part of a community that engages with properly theological questions, and perhaps the struggle of articulating why theology matters to colleagues who have little use for it has made me realize that in some relationships it will only divide and tear down, or it simply won’t register. (For that reason, some of this may appear a bit reductive.)

    At the same time, I often have to remind myself that theology isn’t so much a thing or a strategy or a framework or a rhetoric; most of the time, it’s not coherent at all. Actually, I’m not really sure how to articulate it other than as the cultivation of habits of attentiveness (as you put it) as understood through various faith traditions or, similarly, as a posture of critical openness (whatever that means). I suppose a lot of what I’m saying and thinking functions more at a rhetorical level, as does the goal of RO (to “out narrate”). Of course, you can understand this narration practically/liturgically, but regardless of the imagination or reorientation you bring to it, it’s still basically confined to maintaining a position within the church or some form of the religious tradition.

    For me the concept of ideology–variously defined by critics on left an attempt to understand how/why the proliferation of inequality and exploitation continues despite its frequent occurrence in plain sight, despite our best attempts at diagnosing our present situation, despite our society’s attempts at moral education and its (often poor) attempts to empower communities and individuals–has been an increasingly useful way of understanding the relationship between thought and practice, lived realities and the stories we tell ourselves. I’m pretty sure that part of what compelled me to read and embrace ppl like Cavanaugh, Milbank, Ward (who was probably the most influential for me), Hart, et al, was related to the way theology became a tool of demystification, a way of thinking through certain phenomena (the “secular” for example) more deeply and more critically. Years later, I realized that I had never really questioned the conditions in which these critiques takes place; I just assumed the theological as given, as an a priori condition that was unlimited in its scope. Milbank et al. had given me confidence, but it was a confidence that often made me think less of my “stubborn, liberal, secular” interlocutors.

    I’m not saying that something like ideology is all-encompassing, or even that the category has to supersede theological conversations, but I do think it creates a vital tension between the theological imagination and however you want to configure its outside. At its best, the point of ideology critique is to recognize that there is always something at stake outside the conversation and some reason for having it in the first place.

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