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 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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The Dangers of Traditional Theology (The Problem with Tradition Part Two)

About the Author
David Wagschal

(“So Wrong for So Long?” Part 2)

For many of my friends, especially from the Catholic, Anglican, or Orthodox churches (sometimes Lutheran too), the weight of tradition is a powerful argument in the controversy over homosexuality – or, for that matter, in any theological or ethical debate. For them, to do theology necessarily entails a reverent engagement with the sum total of the church’s experience. Often tradition is accorded a near-absolute authority. At the very least, the weight of tradition acts as a powerful break on any change or innovation.

As I noted last post, I’m sympathetic to this vision. At its best, it represents an openness to wisdom and experiences beyond our own place and time. It is a deferential way of doing theology that emphasizes the importance of dialogue with the past, and demands a humility about our own, modern opinions. It also counters the notion of theology as simply an exercise in philosophical ratiocination or pure Biblical exegesis.

I’ve nevertheless become increasingly aware of the weakness and dangers of doing theology this way. These are not well recognized today. In fact, I think they’ve rarely even been identified.

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So Wrong for So Long? (The Problem with Tradition Part One)

About the Author
David Wagschal

“David, can the church really have gotten it wrong for so long? You claim that the church has made some pretty big missteps, not only on the homosexuality issue, but on the nature of scripture, the church, even the Gospel itself. Doesn’t that really strain the limits of credibility? Really, for almost two millennia the church has, well, blown it?”

This is among the most common objections I hear, especially from friends of churches which identify closely with the traditional Greco-Roman or “imperial” synthesis (Catholic, Orthodox, traditional Anglicans, etc). It’s the tradition question: can we not rely, at least to some extent, on received tradition – on the sheer weight of now almost twenty centuries of consensus and usage – as a criterion of truth? Should not this tradition be authoritative for Christians?

A Good Objection

Gotta say that I am very sympathetic to this objection. It was the key reason why, in my late teens, I left a mainstream Protestant church to join a more traditional church. I could never get my head around the sheer historical implausibility of the Reformation view of the world: first there was Jesus, then Paul – then darkness – then the Reformation.

Really?

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