The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Final post and Epilogue]

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
For part four, see Why the Permeative Tradition is Failing
For part five, see The End of the Road for the “Divine Church”

Letting Go of Coercion and Control

What about Christian behaviour in Reformation 2.0? Here I believe we will see a huge change: the repudiation of Christianity’s deep investment in practices of control and coercion. This shift will be another collateral effect of the final rejection of permeative theology.

The old theology understood salvation as above all an exercise in ethical transformation and development. On both the individual and societal level, the divine kingdom was to “break in” and begin now, in this world. Permeative theology therefore thought of the Gospel, the word of God to humanity, as fundamentally a blueprint for right living – i.e., as a law. This gave Christianity license to prescribe, often in very great detail, the correct moral, social and political way of life for its members, and indeed, for the whole world.

In its more benign forms, this prescription could take the form of persuasion. But since the Christian way of life was understood as a divine revelation – i.e. backed by God’s direct authority – it was natural for Christians to move from persuasion to coercion. Indeed, the church soon developed elaborate mechanisms for the internal enforcement of its community rules (albeit generally garbed in the language of “education” and “healing”): excommunication, demotion, public shaming, and so on. With the advent of the Christian state in the 4th C, a further step was easily taken: Christian beliefs, values and morality became enforced by the political and legal might of the state. Soon enough, the Christian Roman empire – and then its medieval successors – became, in effect, totalitarian religious states: one state-sanctioned set of beliefs and moral values was prescribed for the entire populace, under penalty of law. Citizenship and adherence to orthodoxy became almost synonymous. It became a cultural given of western societies that the church should political enforce its moral will and values.

Today, the collapse of this traditional religious-political compact is causing much of the deep anxiety and anger evident in Christian communities. Christians are now caught in a terrible bind: on the one hand they believe their God and message demands and compels them to control each other and the world around them – but now they largely lack the means to do so. This frightens and frustrates them: they are failing their God.

In response, most Christians are trying to find some way of regaining ethical/political control of their communities and/or states. The rise of “political theology” and the culture wars are two symptoms of this. In many cases, Christians are opting to reconfigure Christianity around the development of small sectarian communities – Christian-controlled societies-within-societies – where Christians can still continue the old patterns of control and coercion. They are in effect collapsing the old imperial theocratic/totalitarian system into Christian micro-states/societies (Hauerwas’ theology is an excellent and influential example of this, as I’ve noted, but sectarian impulses may be found in a variety of forms, across the denominations).

Reformation 2.0, however, will finally recognize that the desire to coerce and control is itself the root problem. It will recognize that the Gospel requires no coercion. Disjunctive theology finally understands that the Gospel is not a revealed law. It recognizes that the only message that we ascribe to God’s voice, to God’s authority, is the radical message of total mercy and acceptance: that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has freely and without condition bestowed salvation upon the entire world. That’s it. Everything else beyond this – in Scripture, in tradition, from mystical revelation, from reason, whatever – is us.

This has profound consequences for  Christian ethics. It means that, in Reformation 2.0, when we develop a Christian ethics from our meditation upon and experience of the Gospel – which we will, and indeed, must – we will never invest it with divine authority. We will see implications of the Gospel for society and politics, but if we are going to try to enforce any of this, in any context, we are always going to do it in our name. Any “law” or “blueprint” we come up with is ours, our interpretation – not God’s. God does not give us a law: God gives us a message of salvation. Any Christian law is therefore changing, passing, fallible. This means we will need to recognize that we have no divine sword to wield in the ethical and political realms; we have no divine mandate. If we choose to control and coerce – that will be entirely on our authority, and our responsibility. But perhaps without a divine mandate, without pretensions to a revealed law, we may be a little less inclined to coerce to begin with?

Disjunctive theology will therefore permit Christian ethics to develop along a very different trajectory from its historical path. Christian ethics will now emerge as an unabashedly secular enterprise that can engage with non-Christian ethics on an equal footing – not from the commanding heights of divine ordinance.  It will be distinctive, of course, as it will naturally focus on the radical mercy and co-suffering love that we believe God has manifested to the whole world. But since it will be rooted in the radical separation between God’s actions (salvific, already accomplished) and our actions (not in any way salvific), the winds of religious compulsion and zealotry will not easily blow in our sails. We might not be happy with a world where our version of ethics isn’t dominant; but we will know that no one’s salvation is ever at stake.  And who knows? Might this not lend us the composure and grace to allow our message to once again appear persuasive?

Epilogue

The analyses in the last six posts may appear impossibly radical. For those with “ears to hear”, it does basically imply the reversal of much mainstream theology, including, I’ll note, much of historical Lutheranism. I am a church historian, and I am aware of the implications of what I’m saying. I realize it is a bit crazy.

But is it as crazy as it sounds?

My experience has shown me that many of the above ideas may be becoming more common than you might think. Our articulation of our theology, still very much beholden to the old forms, has perhaps not yet caught up to our operative beliefs. But I find it amazing how often I discover – when I can get people to let down their guard, and speak heart-to-heart about what they believe – that Christians have already quietly arrived at much of what I’m advocating above.

For instance, I find it extraordinary the degree to which the disjunctive tradition’s understanding of salvation has come to dominate Christian belief. I can honestly say that – at least within my bubble of mainstream Protestantism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy – I have almost never met a theologian who believes that people’s salvation is truly tied to their transformation or ethical/spiritual development (and that people might be burning in hell for ethical wrong-doing). Permeative-style transformation might still be understood as an important and desirable consequence of salvation – the frosting on the cake, as it were – but how many people actually believe that our ethical transformation is necessary for salvation in a strict sense? I have found that almost everyone feels that, ultimately, God’s love and mercy are somehow inexorable – that in the end, they win out, they trump everything. It might be asserted that we do not “fully” realize all the results of this mercy and love now, but there is still the idea that whatever we understand to be the core of Christianity, that is what God has entirely taken care of, for everyone, forever, whatever our actions. This sentiment gets articulated in many different ways, but it seems to be nestled deeply in people’s innermost pieties. To me, this implies that the distinction, however implicit, between salvation proper (justification) and sanctification has actually become widely adopted, and deeply internalized. If I’m right about this, this is a huge Lutheran coup. This distinction is not part of the late antique/medieval imagination (or only tangentially).

Similarly, if less dramatically, is it just me, or is it getting rare to find a traditional reverence for “the Church”? Open criticism of the church is now quite common, and people – particularly the laity – are increasingly reticent to say that anyone must belong to a certain church to be a true Christian, however that is defined. Certainly even the clergy are very quick to qualify the stronger claims of the old ecclesiology. “What the church teaches” simply doesn’t seem to existentially exercise peoples’ consciences: people easily pick and choose among church teachings and among churches themselves. There is simply not a fear of church as a kind of supernatural authority. Generally, it seems the authority of churches is rooted much less in their status as a divine “means of salvation”, and much more in their ability to truly communicate the Gospel through their cultivation of insightful teaching, genuine community and authentic aesthetics. Church has, in effect, become disenchanted – and rendered more pragmatic. You even get the sense now that it’s not an issue if church institutions come and go: a church can last for a while, and then it can disappear. That’s fine. It’s as if people have suddenly realized that the church isn’t a divine-human institution. Churches are human institutions. And that’s ok.

I could make similar observation about changes to our attitude towards Scripture, and even control/coercion.

For some, all of this this might seem threatening – its seems to witness to the final disintegration of Christianity itself.

But for me it is a sign of hope. It suggests to me that, thanks be to God, we’re not just observing the old synthesis dying. We’re also watching the birth of something new. Even if theology still hasn’t found a language to articulate it, people are finding their way to an alternative. Luther sowed the seeds of these changes 500 years ago; and now, I think, we might finally be ready to really appreciate the fruit. The old foundation is crumbling; it’s weak. It’s not sound. But there is something growing in the cracks! There is another way. The Gospel remains. We just need to learn to speak about it and live it a bit differently.

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The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Five: The Church]

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
For part four, see Why the Permeative Tradition is Failing

The End of the Road for the “Divine Church”

It is a deep and bitter irony that “the Church” has probably become one of Christianity’s greatest liabilities. By “the Church” I mean the idea of the Christian church as a divine institution which mediates and communicates salvation to believers and the whole world. This is “the Church” as a concrete human – yet divine – organization that is necessary for our salvation.

This concept of church is a collateral notion of permeative theology: it is permeative theology’s social expression. Today, it is normally justified with some type of “incarnational” theology, although traditionally its theological articulation has been more diffuse, broadly based in a Neo-platonic vision of a sacred polity that is a step up the “divinity ladder” from other social structures and that communicates higher spiritual realities to lower, more earthly realms.

There are several problems with this idea.

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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”?

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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. []

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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Kicking the Gnostic Habit: The Problem of Faith as Knowledge (Essay)

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order: Part Three

This post is the final instalment in my three-part series on the central doctrinal pillars of the classical, mainstream synthesis of Christian theology as it has developed since approximately the 4th C. (A bit earlier, to be truthful, but this isn’t history class…)

My central contention in this series is that there is a lot more wrong with this core synthesis than most of us recognize. But if we are going to move towards a new synthesis – which I think is now inevitable – we need to start to engage in a much more open and comfortable critique of these older ideas.

The final pillar in my triad is the idea that Christian faith is a kind of knowledge. This is the subtle but pervasive idea that Christianity is a religion of insight, wisdom, and knowledge. It’s the belief that Christianity is the ultimate “philosophy”, even in the broadest, ancient sense of the word as a wise or holy way of life.

It’s hard to get your mind around the idea that Christianity might not be this, at least not at its core — but once you do, the effect is pretty dramatic.

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5

The Problem with Deification (Essay)

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order – Part Two

 In this series, I’m exploring a few of the fundamental assumptions of what I call the “classical” or “imperial synthesis”.  This is the doctrinal mainstream of Christianity as it has developed since the 4th century or so. It’s most representative forms are perhaps the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Calvinist churches, but its assumptions have permeated most forms of Christianity.

My contention is that some of the core doctrines of this synthesis are much more problematic than is often acknowledged. Yet we are still so deeply “within” this synthesis that we rarely directly and frankly question its central ideas.

Last week I looked at the common notion that Scripture is the revelation of God – and the problematic idea that Christianity is somehow at core an exercise in biblical exegesis. This week: salvation as divine transformation.

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Three Pillars of the Old Order: Part One – Scripture as Divine Revelation

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order – Part One

I frequently have conversations with friends who ask me: “why have you abandoned the old patristic / Greco-Roman synthesis?”

By “Greco-Roman synthesis”, depending on the conversation, they might mean Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or, for that matter, traditional forms of Calvinism or even Lutheranism.

In all cases they expect that I will launch into a laundry-list of complaints about the institutional problems or moral stances of contemporary churches. They are surprised when I instead answer: “theology.”

Then follows a few uncomfortable moments when they realize that I seriously think we need to question several central pillars of the Great Church synthesis, that is, of the central trajectory of Christian doctrinal elaboration since at least the 3rd/4th C, whether in its eastern or western forms.

Their first reaction is to think I’ve gone a bit crazy. To be fair, even three or four years ago, my reaction would have been similar.

But abandoning the classical synthesis is easier, simpler and maybe more plausible than you might think. Read More…