Saturday, May 14, 2005

On Ecclesiological Fundamentalism

Thanks to Robert Cunningham for calling my attention to Theo Hobson's article on "Ecclesiological Fundamentalism" in the Autumn 2004 issue of Modern Believing.

I had not heard of this term coined by Donald MacKinnon in 1967, but it cogently expresses the source of the uneasiness that I feel whenever I read the works of George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank.

I was particularly pleased to see Hobson make an assessment of Hauerwas that is similar to a conclusion I drew from a response that Hauerwas gave to a question that I asked him when he gave a lecture at Houston Baptist University about a decade ago. Hobson says,

In Hauerwas's vision, there is no real distinction between church and politics. The task is to upbuild this unitary community, the new polis of the church. He is ultimately a theocrat, an advocate of Christendom's revival.

It also lends support to another conclusion I drew several years ago. To the extent that Hauerwas's vision has been appropriated by Baptist re-envisioners (See my 7-9-04 Blog on Baptist Identity), the difference between them and Southern Baptist Fundamentalists is ultimately the difference between tweedle-dee and tweedle dum. Theocratic political impulses underlie the theology of both groups.

13 comments:

greg said...

Bruce,

It's rare that I see Hauerwas so misrepresented. He spoke at AAR just last year in a debate with Jeffrey Stout about this very issue. Hauerwas could give a damn if America or any government survives. His vision is the community of Christ, not any political agenda. He is a theocrat to the same degree that I am, which is to say we're both shaped by Yoder's Politics of Jesus and believe the church is called to bear witness by simply being the church. Hobson grossly misunderstands or misrepresents Hauerewas.

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...

Greg,

I think the question is "What community?"

Community can be anything you hope it would be in abstraction.

greg said...

I think for Hauerwas the community is the gathered community of disciples in any political context: communist, totalitarian autocracy, capitalist democracy, etc. The form of the parent culture is unimportant. It's a plus that we live in a democracy, thus Hauerwas's insistence in Community of Character that we live like people who are grateful for the gift we received. However, the position of the Church toward the world never changes: bear witness, live truthfully, be willing to die, feed the hungry, etc. It's the community as a social ethic that Hauerwas emphasizes. This is why I think it misses the point to accuse him of being a theocrat in the same way that Mohler is a theocrat; Hauerwas simply doesn't care that much about secular politics. He doesn't seem to want to establish a kingdom that rules the earth; he just wants the church to be the church so that the world "will finally have the grace to know that it is the world."

Eric Lee said...

Yes, I very strongly agree that this is a very grotesque misrepresentation of Hauerwas, Lindbeck, and Milbank. I usually like most of what I see on this blog, but this was a surprisingly unfortunate post. The people you mentioned don't want anything to do with what you would call a modern-day theocracy, or any theocracy at all. I'd suggest reading more of these thinkers.

I'm taking a Radical Orthodoxy class right now, and I'd be very, very hardpressed to think that Milbank et. al. have anything to do with the accusations you've thrown at them.

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...

Greg & Eric,

I think Hobson is onto a fundamental weakness of "communitarian" thought. Use of the term "theocrat" may seem harsh, but it resonates with my own impression of the trajectory of Hauerwas's thought.

There are crude, heavy-handed theocrats like Dobson and Falwell and there are sophisticated, light-touch theocrats like Hauerwas.

I am wary of all who are eager to jettison church/state separation. They cannot guarantee that the next generation of church/state "accomodationists" will retain their light-touch. Frankly, even light-touch theocracy is too heavy-handed for those who reject religion.

Those indifferent to whether religion is imposed by the power of the state, undermine the credibility of the gospel. Nothing in the New Testament suggests that the gospel can be extended by force of civil law.

Andy said...

Bruce,

What are the characteristics of a light-touch theocrat?

What evidence do you have that the thinkers in question advocate the promulgation of Christianity by civil law?

You echo, almost verbatim, Hobson's critical comments about Hauerwas' (et al.) theorizing about abstractly-conceived communities -- but what precisely is the thrust of that claim?

Andy said...

Bruce,

I asked the questions above to try and see if your going into more detail might open up space for fruitful discussion.

Generally, however, dismissing a multifaceted and formidable school of theological thought with a few epithets and pithy phrases doesn't do anything but impress the already convinced.

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...

Andy,

By "light touch" theocracy I am referring to at least 1) blessing the distribution tax dollars to ecclesiastical institutions and agencies and 2) basing legislation and government policy on the exclusive values of a majoritarian faith.

It might be helpful if readers were a little more familiar with the issues with which Hobson has been wrestling. He's writing from the context of the decline of the established church in England. Here's to more information about Hobson.

greg said...

Bruce,

I'm certain Hauerwas doesn't qualify under point number 2, and I'm pretty sure he's safe on 1.

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...

Greg,

What does this staement by Hauerwas mean?

"Look what happened to Catholics in the United States. They struggled like hell to make it and finally saw John F. Kennedy elected president. Any Catholic of that generation will tell you how important it was that Kennedy became president. Catholics all over the world rejoiced, but I say it was their day of shame -- particularly when Kennedy told a group of Southern Baptists in Houston that he would follow his conscience and not the Roman Catholic church. Catholics said, 'See, it is possible to be American and Catholic.'"

Here's alink.

Andy said...

Hauerwas says a lot of things, and just about all of them deliberately provocative. I wouldn't want to be burdened with defending or explaining lots of his quotes, even though I'll admit to being influenced by him.

As for the quote, I think the thrust of his statement is that it is a tragic step to drive a wedge between "conscience" and the church. I know that sounds like heresy to Baptist ears, but someone like Roger Williams was not simply following conscience for conscience's sake, but was seeking to be a faithful participant in the true church of his Lord, however hard-pressed he was to find such a thing in his time and place.

I don't think H. speaks very much at all to issues of chuch-state relations as we currently frame them. His concerns are ethical, not procedural.

There's much more that could be said about this, of course, but that's a start.

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...

Andy,

There's no doubt that Hauerwas is often deliberately provocative.

Whenever I've heard him speak on church/state issues, he provokes me.

At least, those in the tradition of the radical reformation honestly faced the difficulty for a Christian to conscientiously serve as a magistrate.

Eric Lee said...

I am wary of all who are eager to jettison church/state separation. They cannot guarantee that the next generation of church/state "accomodationists" will retain their light-touch. Frankly, even light-touch theocracy is too heavy-handed for those who reject religion.

What's interesting here is that ultimately, you are trying to defend the secular. What Milbank and the rest of the Radical Orthodoxy project argue, is that there's no such thing as the "secular" -- it's merely pagan or just really bad theology that tries to fit inside of an ontology of univocity as opposed to an ontology of participation in God. Again, your definition of "theocrat" whether heavy or "light touch" does not work in your critique of them.

Those indifferent to whether religion is imposed by the power of the state, undermine the credibility of the gospel. Nothing in the New Testament suggests that the gospel can be extended by force of civil law.

If you are talking about Hauerwas and Milbank here, then you are again badly mistaken. I'd say start with James K.A. Smith's Introduction to Radical Orthodoxy, and then if you can stomach the bad writing (but profound ideas), take a crack at Milbank's Theology & Social Theory opus. It's great stuff.