The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Four: Theology Concluded]

About the Author
David Wagschal

For part one, see A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now
For part two, see From Scripture to scripture: De-Divinizing Scripture
For part three, see Rolling Back the “Permeative” Theological Tradition

Why is the Permeative Tradition Failing?

Right, so, why will Reformation 2.0 roll back the permeative tradition?

A survey of 20th century theology would suggest that most theologians are inclined to do exactly the opposite. The last century has, if anything, witnessed a widespread revival and retrieval of the permeative tradition, even within Lutheranism, the traditional home of the disjunctive tradition.1 Within some circles, particularly the Protestant post-liberal movement and among the theologians of “Radical Orthodoxy”, the permeative tradition has re-emerged with such zeal that its expression occasionally borders on caricature. If anything, contemporary theology’s leading instincts are almost the precise inverse of the four points of Reformation I’m suggesting in this series.

But we should be very skeptical of this revival. I believe we’re witnessing a phenomenon common to the end of many social and cultural movements: just before the final demise of a cultural structure, a last, usually exaggerated, attempt to re-enact and retrieve its traditional forms emerges. Julian the Apostate’s highly artificial 4th C revival of paganism comes to mind as a good example. When it was finally clear – in the late 4th C – that paganism was in true collapse, that is when we saw an exquisite and elaborate neo-pagan traditionalism articulated. I believe this is exactly what is happening with much of theology of the past century. It seems to be a general phenomenon that, when the carpet is being finally pulled from under our feet, humans instinctively leap backwards (at first). But this movement always signals the end: a last attempt to hold the old structure together before it finally succumbs – and something new emerges.

But why is the permeative tradition poised to “succumb”?

The Historical Problem

The fundamental historical problem is that, in the final analysis, the permeative tradition is nothing more than the cultural Christianity of the late antique Mediterranean. Deeply enmeshed in the metaphysics, conventions and presuppositions of this one, specific pre-modern world, it’s essentially a Christianized version of late Roman Neoplatonism. As this pre-modern world disintegrates, permeative Christianity is disintegrating with it. Had the permeative synthesis remained the cultural Christianity of the ancient world – and then passed away along with that world – there would be no problem. But it has instead become an obligatory part of Christian orthodoxy: to become Christian, you must subscribe to this ancient world-view.

This puts today’s churches in an increasingly untenable position. For people to become Christian, they must implicitly sign on to a host of long-dead cultural and philosophical presuppositions. For the Romantics who want Christianity to be precisely a revivalist sect of pre-modern social and cultural forms, this is fine, and exactly as they wish it to be (and I’m afraid that a lot of modern theology can be characterized as an exercise in this type of Romanticism). But I think it’s fair to say that most people are – rightly – not terribly interested in pre-modern revivalism. They would regard most metaphysical assumptions of the permeative synthesis as mythological, and its moral assumptions as objectionable, even abhorrent. For example: do most of us believe that we inhabit a tiered universe, in which there are inherently higher orders/classes (males, intellectuals, ascetics, freemen, rulers) and lower (females, married people, commoners, slaves)? Or do we take the Biblical historical narratives more-or-less literally? Would many of us subscribe to actual Platonic or Aristotelian ontology? Above all, do most of us want to take up ancient positions on questions of human rights, conscience, freedom of speech, sexuality or political organization? Of course not. But today, when people join permeative churches, they are forced to do just this. Except, of course, they don’t actually believe it or practice any of this. So this creates a huge disconnect between what we believe and what our churches teach – and this makes the whole permeative edifice very unstable. The disjunctive tradition, by contrast, has very few metaphysical claims: in effect, it says “trust in this message of the Gospel, and believe what you want”.

The Theological Problem

A much deeper problem is that, simply as a Christian theology, the late antique synthesis is not impressive. The key diagnostic question for any theology is: “what is the Good News about Jesus that this theology proclaims?” The Good News of the permeative tradition is clear: that God is going to allow us to “work out our salvation”. God will get the ball rolling, and now we just need to embark on a program of exercise, virtue and obedience to complete what God started. In effect, God has set up creation as a great spiritual contest (the Greek agon), which he has graciously allowed us to enter. And the reward, for the willing/worthy? To share in his honour and glory. God is a kind of Greco-Roman master of the games.

At first, this synergistic view appears quite positive and affirming, even flattering (and indeed, the permeative tradition inclines to a kind of anthropolatry). It’s all about our improvement and empowerment. But it doesn’t take long to realize that this comes at a terrible price.

There are two things any Christian synthesis needs to convey: 1) God’s work of total and unconditional grace and love; 2) an honest, unflinching recognition of the depths of sin and misery that humans endure. But the late antique synthesis is weak on both counts. In the permeative tradition, God’s love always comes with conditions (e.g., our performance, ascetic struggle, or assent) and his gift is always dependent upon our reception, response and gratitude. Similarly, sin is constantly downplayed as a humanly-curable state against which we can prevail if we but try.

It doesn’t take too much life experience to figure out that both of these messages are very Bad News. In fact, as Luther long ago realized, if you take this permeative tradition to heart, it is only a matter of time before you feel yourself to be in a state of constant condemnation, and you begin to secretely hate and despise God. How could a merciful God make our eternal salvation dependent upon our wills and performance? The weakness and hopelessness of both are manifest. How could a good God ignore our experience of the overwhelming and inexorable power of sin and suffering – and then, in effect, blame it on us, on our lack of effort, and still demand gratitude and praise? And how could a loving God treat us as participants in some cruel contest for his approval and salvation?

All of this is perverse and grotesque. Most humans treat their children better. Why can’t God?

But in the end, such a God is not the God of the Gospel, whose face should only ever be that of Jesus crucified and risen “for me”. Instead, the face of this so-called god is that of a cruel Roman judge, greedy for power and glory, wrathful, and always demanding the performance of duties from his “clients” to maintain his good will. This “god” can never give us anything but fear and new ways to fail him.

This eclipsing of the face of Jesus in our image of God is part of another, broader theological weakness of the permeative tradition: the strangely minimized position of Jesus and his work. It is striking how, in classic permeative theologies, Jesus becomes merely one figure in a long “salvation history”, where a more generic “God” (the Father) is the key actor. Jesus’ role in salvation is mostly instrumental. He becomes, basically, God’s means for effecting our salvation. Further, Jesus only really initiates salvation – his real role is to enable our salvific work. Jesus plays the opening act to our headlining performance!

But this understanding of Jesus is much too weak for the Gospel. Jesus isn’t a secondary actor, and he isn’t an instrument; Jesus manifests definitively and centrally who God is. And Jesus accomplishes everything for our salvation. He is not a mere means for enabling our action.

So the permeative tradition is actually a pretty brutal theological fail. Traditionalists are endlessly upset by Luther’s “arrogance” in his excoriation of the old tradition; but I think when you consider the depths of the traditional theology’s error, Luther’s anger was well placed, and long overdue. How could Christians perpetuate such a cruel and vicious theology for so long? And allow Jesus to become so oddly marginalized? Our indignation should be directed at the structures and habits that have made us persist in this error for centuries.

Today, if people need Good News, they need actual Good News, not the “Good News” of the church-as-Greco-Roman-arena overseen by Caesar-Judge-God. And so I think it is virtually assured that the churches of Reformation 2.0 will, out of necessity, reject the permeative tradition. This synthesis simply can’t convey the Gospel.

The Holiness Problem

There is one other important weakness of the permeative tradition.

The permeative tradition places a high premium on visible, objective human holiness. This follows necessarily from the idea that the Good News is the Good News of God enabling our holiness. Naturally, this means we should see holiness actually enacted on a human level – at least to some degree.

As a result, most churches in this tradition share a central concern for promoting and creating holiness in the Christian person and community. Further, they tend to look to their visible holiness, their “spiritual success”, as an important means of validating the truth and supremacy of their faith.

Spiritual success can mean different things. Traditionally, it might have meant the emergence of “holy men” who could perform miracles or other wonders. Or it could mean missionary success, or victories granted to Christian rulers against their enemies. More recently, objective holiness might be sought in the successful cultivation of certain experiences (being “strangely warmed”, “experiencing the divine energies”, being “slain by the spirit”, etc.). Today, however, it manifests most commonly in the idea that Christianity creates the best way of life, the best communities, the best civilizations: Christianity possess an inherent moral authority in the social-political realm that others should recognize and follow. Christianity has the recipe for creating a true “kingdom on earth” – an ideal, holy civilization and society. This is where our holiness becomes truly manifest.

But connecting the Gospel and our holiness is a very dangerous game. If our message is tied to our holiness, and then our holiness fails, or even appears to fail, what then? Our message fails too.

Unfortunately, I think this is exactly what has been happening over the last few centuries in the socio-moral realm. The permeative tradition demands “success” in this realm – but we don’t have much success to show, at least not recently.

For centuries Christians could look to the successes of western civilization and claim them as their own. But since the Enlightenment, this has become much harder to do. Does anyone see Christianity as a central force in the tremendous moral, cultural and social advances of the last several centuries? No. Whether it be human rights, freedom of conscience, democracy, pluralism, class struggles, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, or simply technological developments that make life better for people, Christians have generally not been on the cutting edge of progress. There are exceptions, but mostly we have settled into a depressingly familiar pattern of playing moral catch-up to “secularism” – and that’s when we’ve not been supporting outrightly retrograde or oppressive positions, which is now fairly common. The painful truth is that Christianity has lost the moral upper-hand, and has for some time. People don’t today think “church” and immediately think “good” or “holy”, and for good reason. Secularism has largely “beaten” Christianity at actually encouraging human flourishing, at simply being good to others, at helping people, and improving lives.2

This is a tremendous problem for the permeative tradition (cf. my analysis of Hauerwas on this point). What has happened to all of those “divine energies”? To our objective transformative work in the cosmos empowered by God’s grace? To our synergistic developing of the kingdom? The permeative tradition needs us to show some results — it’s version of the Gospel is exactly that we really can produce results! Granted: we can blame our sinfulness. But that only goes so far: presumably the Enlightened secularists have been just as sinful, and yet they seem to have done so much more. Why? Have Christians even shown the vision to produce what the Enlightenment has — much less its results?  No: in the end, we’ve been out-moraled. The narrative of Christian socio-political superiority is simply not credible.

So has God failed? Has the Gospel failed? If we follow the permeative tradition, these are hard conclusions to avoid.

But there is another possibility: maybe our theology has failed? Maybe we shouldn’t have been tying the Gospel to our holiness to begin with…?

I think Reformation 2.0 is going to reach the latter conclusion pretty quickly.

Next week: The End of the Road for “The Church”

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  1. The so-called Finnish school is only the most obvious example. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics points in the same direction in a subtler, but profounder way. []
  2. Of course, Christians will retort that most modern Western advances still, ultimately, have been predicated upon the Christian cultural heritage. No doubt there is truth to this and there may even be enough truth in it to convince those born into traditional Christian churches to stay in those churches. But there’s probably not enough truth in it to get anyone else to join. []

The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Three – Theology]

For part one, see A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now
For part two, see From Scripture to scripture: De-Divinizing Scripture

Part Three: Into the Heart of the Storm

The next major change I envision pertains to our core Christian theology: we will roll back the “permeative” theological tradition – i.e. the theology of deification, sanctification, or incarnation.

This is a huge change, and needs considerable explanation. But this will be at the revolutionary heart of Reformation 2.0, so bear with me.

What is the Permeative Tradition?

The permeative theological tradition is so pervasive that even professional theologians often do not realize that it is “a” position, or that there might be an alternative.

Permeative theologies think of God’s actions in the world as quasi-physical energies or forces that spread and “permeate” throughout the cosmos and human nature. Salvation is understood as a gradual process in which one is progressively infused with these divine energies/grace. In this view, the whole point of God’s actions is to slowly assimilate the world to God through the gradual working of God’s energies to transform the world into the divine. Generally the cosmos is conceived as a hierarchical spectrum of being, in which creation is meant to progress ever further towards the higher, more spiritual realms where the world finds it truest reality/being. The ethical life of humanity is also understood as on a spectrum, where sin has a quantitative character which can be gradually – and quite truly – purged and cured. The idea of a graded, gradual ascent is critical: one is always struggling to move up through higher levels of knowledge and ethical realization to realize one’s (true) divine life.

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The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Two – Scripture]

About the Author
David Wagschal

For Part One, see “A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now”

Into the Storm

So I think it’s about time that I throw down the gauntlet and start to outline what I think the next reformation is going to look like. What is going to change, and what isn’t?

My prediction is that Reformation 2.0 will be both radical and not-so-radical.

The Gentle Showers

Let’s start with the not-so-radical bit.

This time around, I’m pretty sure our “externalities” are not going to be a big issue. When we think about reform, our minds go back to the 16th century and we tend to worry about major changes to our everyday experience of Christianity – to rituals, aesthetics, structures. We are usually deeply intimidated by this, because our identities are bound up with these practices and structures.1

But Reformation 2.0 will, I suspect, be happy to leave the majority of current Christian practice intact. In fact, a hallmark of Reformation 2.0 will almost certainly be its tolerance of a huge variety of forms for Christian existence. Holiness folks? You will be able to keep your passion and praise. Orthodox? Your liturgical beauty and ethnic traditions won’t need to be diminished. Christian Reformed? You won’t lose your simplicity and austerity. Lutherans? You can keep your singing and informality. Traditional Roman Catholics: keep your Tridentine mass, if you want. High Anglicans: go wild – use as many “thees” and “thous” as you please! And if you aren’t into any of this – perhaps you prefer a house church, or other informal spiritual group – actually, that’s fine too.

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  1. Why our identities have gotten so deeply enmeshed is these practices and structures is something we need to question – but that’s another post. []
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The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part One]

About the Author
David Wagschal

There’s hardly a week that goes by where I’m not somehow reminded of the pressing need for Reformation 2.0 in the Christian church. A bitter sermon; a conversation with a frustrated Christian friend; a depressing news story about this or that church; the silly or embarrassing behaviour of a church leader. I can’t seem to escape it. Everywhere I look I see evidence that the old synthesis is fraying: pastors seem to be regularly and systemically burnt out; theologians are angry, cynical and uncertain; the laity is tired and perplexed; churches stand empty. Sadness, anger and frustration linger everywhere. Distortion and exaggeration seem to be on the rise. Most of all: people seem oddly disconnected from church, even when they don’t want to be. It’s like no one exactly fits the old mold anymore. We’re all standing “outside” of the system now, in different ways. It’s weird.

The atmosphere is so strange. I feel like I can almost smell the storm coming. It’s not all negative: there is a kind of new, almost wild hope in the air too. But something is going to give; and soon.

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The Church, Freed: An Alternative to Hauerwas

About the Author
David Wagschal
  1. An Alternative to Hauerwas’ Church
  2. Summary: Conclusion

I’m hesitant to devote another post to Hauerwas. If you’ve followed my essays on Hauerwas over the past months, you know that my estimation of his theology has been souring. I’ve come to see his work as deeply flawed – down to its roots. More, I’ve come to see his theology as a dead-end.

To me, Hauerwas represents a whole generation of theologians who, enjoying perhaps the last gasp of Christendom’s material supports (secure professional positions, media profile, some level of public authority), recognized the dying of the old synthesis, but responded in exactly the wrong way. Instead of forging a new synthesis, they tried one last time to revive the old. Instead of engaging with the world, they retreated into sectarianism. Instead of finding new ways for the church to speak in the world with power and conviction, they drew it further into Romantic nostalgia. Worse, they’ve managed to obscure the few voices (the old “liberals”) in the early 20th C who were struggling – admittedly, not always happily – to fashion some type of new synthesis.

As you can gather, I’m a bit bitter about this. I am — speaking very personally — quite demoralized and frustrated. We really needed more from them. I feel that my generation, with far fewer resources, now has the burden of not only devising a credible new synthesis – which was their task – but also cleaning up their legacy.

And their legacy is really problematic.

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There’s Something Fishy about Hauerwas’ Idea of Church

About the Author
David Wagschal

I’ve now completed the Hauerwas Reader, and I’ll soon be writing my concluding post on America’s Theologian. But first, there is one issue that has been nagging at me. It has to do with a strange set of contradictions that linger around Hauerwas’ understanding of “church”.

  1. Hauerwas’ Idea of Church
  2. So Where’s the Contradiction?
  3. The Pandora’s Box of Pre-Modernity
  4. Hauerwas the Liberal and the End of the Road

Hauerwas’ Idea of Church

Church is a central, maybe the central, focus of Hauerwas’ work. In fact, his theology could be characterized as a Methodism-that-found-church. Methodists understand the Gospel as an empowering of Christians to realize a concrete moral/ethical holiness. Hauerwas (a Methodist) believes this whole-heartedly, but his holiness must have a “political” dimension: an active manifestation in a socio-political community. Therefore, Christians must achieve holiness as church. Church therefore becomes a critical part of Christian life, since a) it is the necessary training ground and framework for holiness/virtue; and b) more so, it is the very realization of that political holiness: the church is Christian ethics in Hauerwas’ view. And since the Gospel is Christian ethics, and Christian ethics means nothing without the church, the church is the Gospel.

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Hauerwas’ Inner Constantine

  1. What is Constantinianism?
  2. Hauerwas: Constantine’s Mini-Me?
  3. So… what is a real antidote to Constantinianism?
  4. How is such a position possible?

Constantinianism?

I continue to struggle with Hauerwas’ sense that he is not “Constantinian”.

“Constantinianism” takes its name from the 4th C Roman emperor, Constantine the Great (272-337 AD), who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire and set it on the path to becoming the empire’s official, state-sponsored religion. Under his successors, Christianity became deeply integrated into the political, legal, and cultural structures of Roman society. Eventually, in the late empire (and in its medieval successor states), state citizenship and Christian belief became virtually synonymous. The empire became viewed as the earthly mirror of the heavenly kingdom, and the ruler as God’s appointed representative on earth (under the tutelage of the clergy, of course!). Religious dissent became an offence against the state, and the divine mission of the state and the divine mission of the church were understood as inextricably linked.

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Hauerwas in (Very Broad) Perspective

About the Author
David Wagschal

Stanley Hauerwas’ work is usually read as a reaction to the theological liberalism of the 19th and early 20th C. Hauerwas situates his own work this way, and this is how he is mostly characterized in the academy. He is a “post-liberal” concerned with re-asserting the particularity and distinctiveness of Christian belief over and against liberal theologies that sought to harmonize or reconcile Christian theology with Enlightenment and humanist beliefs.

Such a contextualization of Hauerwas’ work is both accurate and useful. But it may be a bit narrow. What happens if we place Hauerwas’ work in a broader perspective?

Resurrecting the Imperial Church

For me, as a historian trained in late antique and Byzantine culture, what immediately jumps out from the pages of Hauerwas is the extent to which he can be read as resurrecting the key tenets of the pre-modern “imperial” Christian synthesis. This is the 3rd and 4th C “Great Church” synthesis of doctrine and practice that congealed into the official religion of the Roman Empire and broadly became the basis of all historic branches of Christianity.

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Five Counterpoints to Hauerwas

About the Author
David Wagschal

I’ve decided that life is too short, and the days too beautiful, to engage in a lengthy refutation of Hauerwas.

I don’t mean this as a slight to Hauerwas. It’s just an acknowledgement that, for a Lutheran, Hauerwas is almost an anti-theologian.

In a nutshell, Hauerwas’  wants to:

  • blur, even erase, the division between justification and sanctification;
  • re-establish Christianity as a new law;
  • replace a Pauline and grace-centric reading of Scripture with a “whole narrative” reading;
  • restore the old Greco-Roman belief in salvation as divine transformation and growth in holiness (particularly via the re-appropriation of classical virtue ethics);
  • replace faith-as-trust with faith-as-obedience/subjection (“faithfulness”);
  • and above all, re-divinize or “re-enchant” the church as the key and exclusive locus of salvation and truth.

This is basically a program to roll-back the Lutheran Reformation.

And politics?

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Step-up, Stan! Stanley Hauerwas – America’s Theologian

About the Author
David Wagschal

Has Christianity been playing a role in the erosion of liberal democratic values? Has it been contributing to the rising tide of authoritarianism, tribalism and anti-rational discourse? If it has, does it have to? Is there another way?

These are the questions that have sparked my current exploration of contemporary political theology.

For the American scene, these questions find an obvious focal point in one theologian in particular: Stanley Hauerwas.

Stanley Hauerwas, an American ethicist and political theologian, is something of a theological celebrity. He’s been hailed as “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine. He’s received innumerable honors, and his work has generated a sizable secondary literature in both Protestant and Catholic circles. Almost all seminarians read something of him. Heavens, he’s even appeared on Oprah Winfrey.

The precise source of his appeal is hard to pinpoint. He probably hasn’t made any one particularly remarkable or original contribution. Perhaps his curious combination of Methodist, Anabaptist and Catholic thought has simply hit all the right buttons in late 20th/early 21st century America theology? Or maybe he is one of those thinkers who has somehow managed to perfectly articulate the “spirit of the times”? Probably his exceptionally readable and approachable style hasn’t hurt — not to mention his charming Texan accent and penchant for swearing.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Something about Hauerwas resonates very deeply in America, and that is all that counts for our purposes. Hauerwas embodies a significant aspect of the American religious consciousness – so we need to explore his thought very carefully.

Hauerwas, however, is a difficult theologian to review.  It’s not that his ideas are complex, but his corpus is very large and very scattered. It’s hard to treat him by reviewing a book or two. (As I did with Yoder.)

Fortunately there is a 750 page+ compilation of many of his key works, curated by John Berkman and William Cavanaugh.  It’s now a bit dated, but I think it will do for our purposes. Over the next few posts I’m basically going to plow through this reader, and offer a series of reflections on the political implications of Hauerwas’ sprawling theological project.

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