Dr. JoAnne Marie Terrell, in a class I took with her at Chicago Theological Seminary, once remarked that “Humanity is not the object of theology; God is the object of theology.” I think this is mostly correct, and that it showcases the absurdity at the heart of the theologians task, which is to write and say words about that which we nothing can be said, that which is, in the words of St. Augustine, “other, completely other.”
The task at hand for theology may be to reflect upon God, but I think theology also has the task of helping us human beings find our place in God’s story. By talking about God, we learn more about ourselves, being created in the very image of God as we are. And we do so by hearing the story of the people who have yearned after God, and finding ourselves writing the next chapter in that story. As Hauerwas and Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “Story is the fundamental means of talking about and listening to God, the only human means available to us that is complex and engaging enough to make comprehensible what it means to be with God.”
In telling our story, one cannot overlook the suffering that afflicts each and every person. Few things link all of humanity together like the reality of suffering and death which each one of us must face down eventually. Suffering, and the fact that our story inevitably ends, places us within the arc of history, and gives color and meaning to a life that otherwise would be completely placid and completely experience-less. One must go through the valleys to climb the mountains.
Human suffering and God come together in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The story of Christ is the inflection point of the story of God’s people, and colors all we as Christians say and know forever more. Our story becomes clearer through the lens of Christ’s story. Hauerwas writes in a more recent work, “that one of the fundamental tasks of theology is the ongoing attempt to develop the tools necessary to tell truthfully the story of Jesus Christ in such a manner that his life shapes our lives. That means, however, that there is not nor can there be an end to the telling of the story, because the story is quite literally ongoing.”
This is a work, fundamentally, about the human reality of suffering, what that reality says about how we understand God, and how we can relate to God, in some small way, through our experiences of suffering and death. No word written here can capture the immutable good of God, the ultimate reality God represents. All we can hope for in this endeavor is to contribute to the story of humankind, in a way that maybe illuminates one corner of our experience, and shows how Christ walks with us in each and every moment.
As noted earlier, this specific nexus of white working-class people is often dismissed by those on both the right and left – politically and in the church as well- as worthy of time and attention, both because of their abhorrent political expressions and their waning utilitarian merit in terms of electoral power and economic output. This attitude towards rural white working-class people often leads to an attitude that they simply aren’t worth the time or the effort. In the church, this attitude is reflected because of the decline of congregational populations, and the subsequent decline of financial support in these communities. They become a group that is not politically, financially, morally or demographically worth the time of the rest of the country. They are, for lack of a better term, collateral damage for the shoring up of structures of civil and religious power in America.
But, for a church committed to a theological anthropology centered on the Imago Dei present in each human being, no one can be classified as collateral. And, for a society that wanted to believe it had a handle on the social and cultural divides that have long plagued the nation, 2016 showed that classifying this group as collateral and consigning them to the dustbin is not a viable option either. There is political and cultural power in the white working class still, despite (and, most likely, because of) their declining numbers. But beyond the utilitarian arguments around electoral and financial power for reaching out to this group of disaffected Americans, the church also needs to remind itself that when it claims to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it must include all – even those whose political and social attitudes are found repugnant. They cannot be left aside; otherwise, they become easy fodder for prosperity preachers, politically-aligned evangelical conservatives, and the Radical Right.
Simply writing off rural working-class whites is how that demographic is where it is at now: poverty-stricken, afflicted by addiction, mental health issues, substance abuse, violence and suicide; politically and socially resentful of other whites, of minorities, of sexual minorities, of foreigners and immigrants; and susceptible to the political machinations of people like Donald Trump and his religious servants – the Court Evangelicals, as John Fea has so accurately dubbed them. At the point they begin voting in mass for politicians like Trump, and supporting movements like white supremacy and Neo-Nazis, their power becomes readily apparent, and their problems become the problems of everyone. When the white working class pushes Donald Trump to the presidency on a wave of nativism, xenophobia, and raw anger, it becomes incumbent on the rest of America to try to understand why and try to figure out a constructive way forward, because it is actively harming the world. As United Methodist theologian Tex Sample writes, “That the white working-class members do not dominate the American demographic profile as they once did is clear, but to dismiss them as a powerful force in this society is a blunder of major proportions.”
But the answers cannot be purely political; the church must also look for answers. The anger and sense of dislocation and loss emanating from white working-class America is a spiritual malaise as much as it is a political and economic one – if not more so. By spiritual malaise, what I mean is a metaphysical sense of loss and dislocation, a deep and profound melancholy, in the sense expounded by Kate Manne is a recent essay. She writes, “melancholia involves a loss which is resisted rather than fully acknowledged.” This melancholy is experienced in white working-class communities as the sense that the world around them is changing – and it is change they are not ready for, and even actively working against. It is changing in a way that feels like an unnatural exacerbation of the natural feeling of loss in the progress of time, and thus something that must be actively worked against.
It is not because of active hate towards those benefiting, in their view, from this change that they work against this new world, however. Melancholia is not something experienced as quite so other-oriented. Rather, it is a grasping after a past – real or imagined – that the melancholic person is feeling like they are losing. Oftentimes, it is nearly impossible for her to name the perpetrator of that loss definitively. Manne goes on, “The melancholic person is hence in a kind of limbo – consigned to a state of perpetually losing. She hence cannot let go, and is forever at a loss – and at a loss to name the source of her sadness and ambivalence.”
This melancholy, while not other-oriented in origin, becomes so in expression. The melancholic person’s loss is partially felt as a sense of not being heard, and thus they feel they must make themselves heard. Manne draws on Freud when she calls it a “noisy self-abasement – the expression of an inward stripping away of the ego.” This noisy self-abasement is on full display at, for instance, a Trump campaign rally, characterized as it so often is by scenes of inconceivably angry white people. This is the sound of a melancholic people who feel the only recourse they have for what they are feeling and experiencing will come in the political realm.
 John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 99.
I just finished reading Arne Rasmusson’s The Church as Polis. The book is really interesting to me, as Rasmusson’s project is to bring together and put into conversation the two theologians who have, so far, shaped my own theology the most: Jurgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas. For those who aren’t steeped in 20th century Euro-American theological trends, to have these two voices reigning supreme in one’s theological discourse is a bit like trying to organize your life with simultaneously with an IPhone and a Google Chromebook (another bit of meshing I participate in; stick with my stretched metaphor here): on the surface, it seems like it could work, as they purport to do similar things. But in the details, they just don’t mesh, and in fact, you come to find they come across as quite oppositional to what each is trying to achieve.
Nevertheless, I insist on having both Moltmann and Hauerwas speak loudly in my work, because I can neither shake Moltmann’s shattering and paradigm-orienting Theology of the Cross and basic theodicy, nor Hauerwas’ entirely prescient and important orienting of church and world in relation to one another. As a result, I have been fascinated by Rasmusson’s book. His basic goal is to critique and correct deficiencies in Moltmann by a reading of Hauerwas, so he isn’t overly enamored with Moltmann. Nevertheless, he is always charitable and willing to engage Moltmann seriously, and his ultimate goal is keep what is really good in Moltmann while correcting the rest with what Hauerwas does so well. It’s similar to the same yearning I’ve had over the last couple years, and I just couldn’t name it until I read The Church as Polis.
Anyways, my goal here isn’t to get into the weeds of the hermeneutical debate between postliberal and liberal theologies. Rather, I want to comment on the concrete way this book has shifted my thinking, as Rasmusson has really done a good job of verbalizing something I was feeling. The subtitle of the book is “From Political Theology to Theological Politics as Exemplified by Jurgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas.” That important turn of phrase – “political theology” to “theological politics” – gets at a really important point. Let me explain.
Political Theology is a well-established tradition in liberal theology in the 20th and 21st century. Arising out of the thought of German theologian Carl Schmitt, political theology is the work of using various social sciences – anthropology, political science, economics, classical philosophy – to relate Christian theology to the prevailing liberal nation-state and the workings of policy, economy and government. In short, it translates Christianity into a language that enables the Christian to also be an activist. Out of political theology rises what you commonly associate with people like Rev. William Barber, or the theological work of Martin Luther King Jr, or liberation theology, or even, on the other side, the political engagement of conservative Christians (although the Religious Right is equally, if not more so, ideologically dependent on the original evangelistic impulse, Fundamentalism, and Dispensationalism.)
Political theology has been the dominant world I, and most every progressive-leaning Christian, exists in. We hardly ever question the engagement of the church in political language and advocacy, much less the rationalization behind such engagement. For me, liberation theology was a huge entry point into theology. The assumptions this kind of theology brings – of theological work at inherently practical, of the necessity for the church and theology to respond to political events, of the mere compatibility of faith and political causes – are ingrained in many. Political theology partly rests its assumptions on a reading of Matthew 25, but like all areas of liberal theology, it does not assume a necessity for Scripture as a foundation for its hermeneutical worldview, instead drawing upon natural theology in the interest of interfaith and secular outreach in order to advance the political mission it advances. Scripture is used to bolster a previously formulated argument, not necessarily to ground it.
I, and so many others, have taken this view for granted, as just the way Christian theology is, that criticisms like that of Rasmusson – and, by extension, of thinkers like Haeurwas, Yoder, and Lindbeck – seem radical and unreasonable at first. Taking Rasmusson as our guide here, they criticize the ground on which political theology stands, by accusing it, in essence, of being a reactionary doctrine. In other words, political theology does not formulate a theory of the world that it then lets guide its actions. Instead, it takes its cues from modernity, from the priorities of the liberal nation-state, resting its assumptions upon the necessity of state power, and the primacy of the radically liberated individual, making decisions in one’s own self-interest first and foremost. Rasmusson critiques Moltmann on these grounds. Throughout the book, he notes how Moltmann doesn’t root his vision of theological engagement with the world in Christianity as much as he does in liberalism.
The shift, then, to theological politics comes at the level of first-order justifications. Whereas political theology is asking, “what situation can a Christian respond to, and how?”, theological politics asks, “what do politics look like in the context of the Christian church?” This means, what does a community formed and guided by the traditions and assumptions of Christianity look like? Only from that starting point can a Christian even begin to aim towards political engagement with the world. But, this political engagement will never accept the rules of the game laid down by the liberal worldview. Instead, theological politics, and postliberalism in general, tries to envision what a community of faith rooted in the specific, historical practices of the Christian faith, look like. In this way, it doesn’t propose an agenda or blueprint for fixing the things that arise in society, but instead envisions itself as a whole other way of being in the world, anticipating the Kingdom of God and showing, by way of contrast, an alternative. It doesn’t try to take a 30,000 foot view of society, in line with the technocratic assumptions of modernity and the social sciences, but instead envisions a better world achieved moment-by-moment, in the interactions of real people, formed and informed by the Christian virtues taught by the church. Rasmusson terms it a “contrast society”; he writes,
“This concentration on the church’s life and on everyday life does, Hauerwas thinks, prevent the church from speaking to the larger society. Instead it is to make use of the best resources of the church. The church, as a distinct community with its own tradition, can be a carrier of alternative practices and alternative ways of seeing the world.
A church with a strong sense of community, living with a tradition and practices that partly stand apart from the dominating stories, traditions and practices of modernity (as a contrast society), might have a larger ability (because of a different ‘grid’) and the social space to see modern society from other perspectives, and to form and sustain new ways of thinking and living.”
I’ve come around to this way of thinking. For so long, as this blog has evidenced, mine has been a distinctly “political theology,” forming theology to address political issues. I wasn’t necessarily conforming my theology to fit my politics; I still hold on to my beliefs about the dignity of all human beings, the equality of all, the need for compassion and common sense in our communal lives. However, I no longer view the mission of the church as advancing this white paper or that legislative initiative. I don’t think real change in the world, change that reflects the Kingdom, comes through our systems as they are. I am more committed to and interested in localism, a la Wendell Berry, and I think the assumptions of the liberal order are inherently flawed and unworkable. I don’t assume a utopian outlook any more, wherein we have the possibility of realizing the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Instead, we can merely point towards it, but only in the context of a community of virtue, situated in specific practices and traditions.
One of my goals here is to continue to work this out for myself. That’s what I’m trying to do here and one of the themes I will continue here. Because it has been my way of thinking for so long, it is still difficult for me to approach issues and happenings in a new way, but I’m hoping to practice that here. I want to reflect on things happening in the world a little more slowly, and with this different, postliberal lens.