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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Deconstructing the deconstruction of the church: further thoughts

I had a few more thoughts in the wake of what I wrote last night on Jamie Smith's essay offering an appreciative critique of some of the elemental notions of John Caputo's book What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (Smith's blog is here.)

First, while I entirely agree with the notion that the church is the body of Christ, and more than simply a voluntary human institution among others, it is also true that it is, in fact, a human institution as well. (This is not a disagreement with Smith, but a slight expansion of my own ruminations.) Doing away with this dualism, owing to scruples surrounding 'purity' or a misunderstanding of 'holiness' is quite important. But this should never mitigate our own self-criticism, the honest searching for our idolatries and inhumanities, the ways we've hated and betrayed God and neighbour. In short, we should attune our ears to the judgement of God. The presence of the Lord is never undialectical, unambiguous - never, never a possession, nor a merit, never anything but the active gracious presence of the - to borrow Barth's terms - One who loves in freedom.

This doesn't give us a status or power over others - as if the status of the Empire were simply transposed onto the church - but it does give us (I think this is Paolo Frere's phrase) a power for, a status for others; or, even better, (Frere again) it gives us power with, status with others.

Second, while I disavow the idea that the church is simply a voluntary aggregate of like-minded individuals (or disavow that as a regulative ideal, anyway; that's not what we're meant to be), nevertheless, I feel strongly that there is a necessary element of (divine?) patience involved in the being of the church. That is to say, to affirm that it is an organic body isn't meant to imply that it is a closed body, nor that all those 'parts' (i.e. members) of that body should look alike. It is crucial, it seems to me, within the church, to make room for others and the ones they are, to come in at their own time, with their own gifts and concerns and sins and betrayals. This doesn't betray the elementally corporate nature of the Body of Christ, but elaborates on it. And it might cut against some of our most cherished practices and intuitions in the way that body is formed. It also means that the church is always an 'open' body, always receiving the ones that it needs (although it didn't know it), the organs and limbs it cannot live without and yet has for so long. This also means that we cannot make a final judgement on the shape or life of the church, for it is an emerging reality which will only be known eschatologically. (This doesn't at all mean that we cannot make sensible proximate and not-yet final judgements on it; I encourage just as much above from within, and the church needs to hear those judgements from without as well.) Moreover, if we are constituted by the other, then there is a sense in which our corporate and individual identities are opened out eschatologically by those who are not yet here.

All of this implies that, as I mentioned above, there is a quietness (if not a silence) and a patience at the heart of the church (or, again, there ought to be). I have begun wondering if this patience might not be a means of thematising time as ordered to the glory of God. By this I mean, in part, that to be patient is a renunciation of our own power, our own means of resolving everything (or anything), but rather to look in faith and hope to God: to, by the power of the Spirit, grow to embody - however imperfectly - the patience of God, a patience in God which is correlated with his wisdom (Barth again!). This wisdom is not ours, of course, and the patience cultivated in us by the Spirit is a patience which is not the same as God's, but responsive to it.

A subsidiary point about the church not being simply voluntary: to reject voluntarism takes some imagination. That is to say, we must be cautious in rejecting voluntarism and individualism not simply to affirm in some broad and uncritical way their polar opposites. This would be to let the entire individualist problematic to have the last word; we need something better, more faithful. What might that look like? I wonder if 'honouring the other as the one they are' begins to get at it; much more remains to be done here.

Third, while I cling to the notion that orthodoxy is the more radical (and more faithful) way, I mean to clarify that by this I don't mean 1) a closed, decided once for all system that's simply read off and answers all questions (or at least gets people to stop asking them) or 2) a club to beat others with. It seems to me that orthodoxy is established, emerging, and eschatological. That is to say, the basis and subject matter of orthodoxy is God and particularly God's revelation and act in the incarnation (taken to include the cross and resurrection). It's this and not something else, so it is established.*

Yet also it is emerging. It took decades** for John the Evangelist (and his community) to get to grips with the depth of who Jesus was as the Word of God - indeed, God. I take it that his gospel is different not because he needed more time to make up some good stuff, but because there is an endless depth and intensity to the identity of Jesus which simply cannot be 'read off'. Moreover, it is a question whether John would have endorsed the orthodox beliefs of the incarnation (wherein Jesus is fully human, fully divine) and the Trinity (wherein God is three and one) in just the way that they were encoded later in the church. That's not to say either that John was a heretic - not at all - nor to deny that his text served as an important basis for just those formulations. But again, given the intensity of the identity of Jesus, His Father, and the Spirit, it is not unexpected that this might not be recognised in toto in the first generation. More recent questions have to do with questions about God's suffering (and death?), the status of philosophical theism, and who may be (or is) included in the church and its ministry. Because there are strong - often vehement - sentiments on either side of these issues such that opponents may be dismissed out of hand does not in itself change the fact that these are emergent issues about which we are not yet settled; indeed, this kind of strong, heartfelt engagement just shows that we are not yet settled on them.

Finally, orthodoxy is eschatological. A true orthodoxy - to the extent it gestures towards or describes the real God - is always aware of its own incompleteness, for it does not, cannot, encompass or master God. It cannot be exhaustive or final; although it can manifest a measure of confidence in its confession of the Lord, the truth of that confession - indeed the constitution of the one so confessing - is entirely dependent on that same Lord. And being aware of our own sin, incompleteness, idolatry, ideology, and so forth, we ought to be deeply suspicious of a contentment that comes from a closed doctrinal system, or a confidence in ourselves as independent experts. As Paul says to the Corinthians, 'Now we see in a glass darkly (in all sorts of ways, not merely doctrinal), but then (eschatologically) we will know in full, even as we are known.' And so one of the attitudes of the orthodox (it seems to me) should be a certain sort of 'startled humility' (Barth, again): not that our truths are not true, but that they are not ours. I hope the connections here between these doctrinal affirmations and the practices of the church such as prayer, Eucharist, Scripture-reading, conversation, baptism and so forth are manifest.


*In fact, God doesn't need our orthodoxy: we do, for it names - and glorifies - the true Lord.

** That is, John is written several decades after the synoptic gospels; not that he was writing all that time, but that the author and the community had more time behind it between them and Christ.
Picture - Rembrandt's Christ At Emmaus, 1648

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