Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age offers a remarkable account of the development of modern secularity. He understands this condition as involving, not merely the decline of religious belief, but also and more definitively a situation of mutual fragility occurring between various opposing perspectives on the world, society, the self, etc. The rise of exclusive humanism as a positive and widely available option is the major source of this mutual fragility. It keeps a theonomous view of things from being mostly taken for granted, as it once was in pre-modern Christendom.
I’ve been reflecting on Taylor’s analysis recently in light of a visit which I made to El Salvador earlier this summer. This context has led me to hypothesize that disunity in the church’s attitude toward political matters is, in various ways, a powerful force of secularization. What I want to highlight, then, is a kind of fragility within the church itself–a fragility which may be, in some respects, generative of the growth of exclusive humanism and, therefore, of the mutual fragility which Taylor sees as constitutive of secularity.
The Catholic Church in El Salvador, as elsewhere, remains tragically divided. The divisions are displayed starkly in the cathedral in San Salvador. In the crypt below, a Mass takes place in memory of Monsignor Oscar Romero; images of the murdered and the disappeared are brought up during the offeratory; pamphlets and flyers are distributed by lay members of the community detailing pressing issues requiring immediate political action–issues in which what is at stake is precisely the protection of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
Up above, in the main sanctuary, another Mass takes place. There will likely be no mention of Romero, no mention of political exigencies; these topics would be taboo. The liturgical form is impeccable. The message is usually traditional, somewhat predictable, therefore ostensibly safe, but not for these reasons untrue or unimportant. Of course, as has often been noted, the sort of “apolitical” stance exhibited in the top part of the cathedral is, intentionally or unintentionally, always already implicated in politics. In El Salvador, in the U.S. as well, perhaps in principle, silence implies a certain measure of consent. Consent to what? In El Salvador, to a society where many go without clean water, sufficient food, plumbing and sanitation, trustworthy police, basic healthcare, basic education, the prospect for a better life. I do not mean to say that the people in attendance necessarily consent, but that the liturgy appears to, insofar as it consistently keeps silent on such matters, when they are all around and affecting everyone.
Hence, the topology of the cathedral manifests a split-level practice in the church itself. There is a more explicitly political and a more covertly political form of worship and Christian identity formation dividing the space and the people of God into the regions of top and bottom. The one body of Christ, received in both settings, has in each one a significantly different feel.
What does this situation have to do with the question of secularity? On the one hand, secularization can be associated with politicization–and not without reason. The line between a genuinely theological political theology and a post-theological political philosophy has tended to become blurred within modernity, with the result that the work of salvation has been transferred more and more to human hands. The desire for a more “apolitical” liturgy can, accordingly, be understood at least in part as a desire to subordinate the modern political/secular sphere of worldly striving to a higher calling. On the other hand, however, the “apolitical” approach also has the potential to promote secularization, and in several respects: (1) insofar as it is inevitably political in any case, (2) insofar as its pretense to transcend politics makes it appear, to many whose lives are in the balance, hypocritical and irrelevant, and (3) insofar as it factors into the paralyzing disunity in the church which compromises the meaningfulness and fruitfulness of its sacramental practice. In all of these ways, the church risks its identity and its credibility.
Just as, in Europe, the fragmentation and discord in the church of the 16th and 17th centuries laid the groundwork for the rise of exclusive humanism as an increasingly prevalent option in the 18th and 19th centuries; so too, I fear that these sorts of grave tensions in the El Salvadoran church and the church throughout the world, if left unchallenged, will only hasten the globalization of secularity. This ecclesial fragility is not the only factor, but it is an important one among others.
To address it, it seems that we need to recognize, minimally, (1) that the gospel, though more than political, has political implications; (2) that politics, though necessary, is not the only necessary thing; and (3) that any divisive rhetoric we use has a price, possibly a very high price, and should therefore be used only with great caution. I would also suggest that we need to look once again to the example of Oscar Romero, who responded in faith to the needs of his society and saw no conflict between the two (orthodoxy and action). His response to suffering, which led him in a more political, but not reductively political, direction must be seen as an increase in Christian theological rigor.
The most reliable way to resist secularization worldwide is to unite the church in a simultaneously divine and human love for the poorest of the poor.
I just received the latest issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review in the mail (84.3, July 2010), which is cast as a tribute to Stanley Hauerwas on his 70th birthday. Most of the essays come from Mennonite former students of his: Chris Huebner (now of CMU), Peter Dula (EMU), and Alex Sider (Bluffton). There’s also an essay by Mark Thiessen Nation, and a print version of Hauerwas’s recent commencement address at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.
Most exciting of all is the very first entry: “A Comprehensive Bibliography of the Writings of Stanley Hauerwas,” spanning 46 pages and 41 years worth of work—books, miscellaneous essays, reviews, sermons, and interviews. This painstaking work of love was performed by Angus Paddison of the University of Winchester and Darren Sarisky of Cambridge. It’s absolutely fascinating to read. The first two entries, editorals from 1969 and 1970, hearken back to a day before Hauerwas had become Hauerwas: “The Ethics of Black Power” and “The Ethics of Population and Pollution.” The compilers’ greatest contribution is to have tracked down the innumerable short, popular writings Hauerwas has done over the years. He wrote surprisingly often, for example, for the Notre Dame Magazine while he worked here—the quarterly publication the school produces for its alumni and devotees. I’m going to get my hands on some of these as soon as possible, like “Notes by a Non-Catholic” from 1974 and “Rev. Falwell and Dr. King” from 1981.
The relation between Hauerwas and Mennonites is extremely interesting, and I think even “productive” for theology in general. In Peter Dula’s contribution, for example (my favorite of the bunch), titled “For and Against Hauerwas Against Mennonites,” Hauerwas’s claim to be a “high-church Mennonite” is taken seriously as a critique of Mennonite ecclesiology. It seems to me that in the work (maybe in the person) of Stanley Hauerwas, more than almost anywhere else, the similarities and specific differences between “high” and “low” church ecclesiologies make themselves evident. That confrontation is not only crucial to an understanding of Hauerwas, but also one that has lain all too quietly beneath the surface of the growing popularity of high church traditions—manifested in the number of recent conversions and the phenomenon of quasi-Catholicisim—which has gone on without very much theorizing of the low-church end at all. This new generation of Mennonite scholars is starting to remedy that nicely. (Another major example among Mennonites is the work of Fernando Enns, who has made important inroads, occasionally criss-crossed with those blazed by Hauerwas, into the relation between ecclesiology and nonviolence.)
All this to say: the recent issue of MQR is highly recommended, as, along the same lines, are The Gift of Difference: Radical Orthodoxy, Radical Reformation (eds. Chris Huebner and Tripp York) and Unsettling Arguments (eds. Charles R. Pinches, Kelly S. Johnson, Charles M. Collier), a new festschrift for Hauerwas that includes essays by many of the same authors in this issue.
I’m increasingly suspicious that Hauerwas’s “ambiguous ecclesial position,” which he obviously knows is a problem for him, means more theological trouble for him than he realizes. Take this quote, from his response to Stout’s Democracy & Tradition in Performing the Faith:
We betray the very gospel we are to serve if we have “positions” that become substitutes for what the church is about. Put in Catholic terms that Yoder would not have liked (though John often said his only problem with bishops is that they did and do not act like bishops), the bishop remains the theological heart of the church. That is why theologians are subordinate to the bishop and should be disciplined by the bishop if our work threatens the unity and holiness of the church. (233)
This amounts to a total reversal of what it means for a theologian to be accountable to the church—a matter of subordination to the community’s most powerful member, and not, as for Yoder, “subordination” to the weakest. Does he think it’s possible to make this kind of claim while leaving the bulk of his dependence on Yoder intact? Does he think that Yoder’s refusal of a clergy/laity distinction, or of any fixed hierarchy in the community, is finally unrelated to Yoder’s pacifism, his ecclesiology, his Christology?
Halden Doerge spun out a provocative series of posts last week on the image of the church as the body of Christ. His main contention throughout was that “what the metaphor indicates is not a monopersonal identity that fuses Christ and the church.” From what I can tell, Halden’s objection to speaking of the church as “one body” with Christ stems from two related concerns: (1) to maintain Jesus’ position as mediator as unique to his historical person, and (2) to avoid rendering the church as a static, coherent “subject” such as could stand in as mediator. The latter seems especially problematic to him in that it divinizes the church understood as a static collective, leaving it in some sense immune to criticism. This is how “the body of Christ” can become an ideological concept.
This is a pretty perceptive analysis, in my opinion—but I think Halden locates the hinge in the wrong place. It’s not the concept of subjective unity that twists the image in an ideological direction, but the portrayal of the subject as static. Notice that in his most direct argument that the church is not a collective subject, the points of criticism tend toward the conclusion that there can be no such thing as a collective subject at all. Collectives are always constituted by a “nexus of relationships.” Because the church always takes the form of of mutual self-giving in love, it’s an “event” rather than a subject. But what does that assume about subjects? Can’t an individual subject, too, be described as a kind of nexus of inner relationships that require dynamic ordering if she is to stay sane, to act as one?
The problem isn’t with the idea of collective subjectivity itself. We live constantly as members of collective subjects, subjects that are more or less fractured, and more or less authoritarian. The problem is with a particular idea of what it means to be a unified subject: denying the “event” character of subjectivity itself, and portraying the subject as self-contained. (This kind of subject, whether individual or collective, is inevitably tyrannical.) Do away with a static, self-contained concept of subjectivity with respect to Christ, too, and Christ’s sole mediation need not preclude a participation in his unique personal identity—it could even be said that the specific form of Christ’s mediation is our inclusion in him as a collective subject. The uniqueness of Christ is precisely that he, unlike other historical figures, is an individual and collective subject at the same time.
This is all very schematic and impressionistic, I know. Bear with me.