Posted by Brad Littlejohn at 9:58 PM
July 14, 2010
More pressing matters have delayed me from saying more about the controversy conference, but I do want to return to it and say a bit about some of the other lectures while the memory is still fresh. The afternoon of the first day of the conference was graced by the presence (via videoconference) of David Bentley Hart and Robert Jenson, both titans of the American theological landscape and both known as well for their colorful personalities, which came through even from 5,000 miles away.
Hart’s lecture was entitled a “Penitential Approach to Controversy,” though that was not really its main focus. The penitence referred to was his own, coming to us as he did with a legendary reputation for bombastic theological rhetoric. We can, he said, invoke the prophets as a model for dramatic controversial pronouncements, but we must acknowledge that most of us are not called to be prophets in this way, and that went for him as well.
Hart proposed in his lecture to offer us not so much an argument as an intuition of why it is that ferocious controversy has been such a perennial feature of the Christian Church’s life, despite the New Testament’s clear calls for peace and unity. His suggestion was provocative and intriguing, disturbingly similar to liberal reconstructions of the early Church of the von Harnack variety, and yet refusing to grant their apostate conclusions.
There is a deep tension at the heart of the Christian faith, he suggested, between its apocalyptic other-worldiness and its need to become assimilated to history, to life in this world. Dogma and cult were the means by which the Church had to tame, as it were, the apocalyptic inbreaking of the Gospel and make it suitable for millenia of waiting for the consummation. Christianity entered history not as a set of doctrines, but as an apocalypse; it constituted an overturning of history and nature as we know them, or as we think we know them. There could be no simple return to the sacred as formerly understood, and there didn’t have to be, because history was coming to an end. Christianity thus accords ill with any purely cultic rationality.
It would take some time, and some adjustment of expectations, for so singular an interruption of the eschatological into the temporal to be recuperated into a stable institution of words and practices. Christianity had to become historical again, cultural again, cultic again. Christianity was forced to take on the morphology of the religions which it had replaced, without compromising its content. What began as force had to become structure--the event had to crystallize.
Now thus far, this has a great deal of similarity to certain liberal narratives, but Hart does not take all this to mean that the assimilation to history was wrong, or something that we need to undo. It is necessary and valuable--dogma and cult and all the rest. Nonetheless, there is a tragic element to this accomodation between apocalypse and cult. The apocalyptic force of the Christian revelation, its newness and power, its difference from all that came before, is too volatile to permanently and comfortably sit at ease within its own institutional boundaries. It is for this reason, suggests Hart, that Christianity has proved so uniquely fissile, and creative even of a militant atheism and nihilism. There is an ungovernable destructive energy at the heart of Christianity that is always at tension with its constructive impulses.
Dogma, therefore, the Christian event’s assumption of a fixed, historical, and institutional form, although it can be the poetic discovery of language for speaking about God, is also in some sense the language of disenchantment. It wants to recuperate the force of a cosmic disruption in the form of institutional formulae. This is not something to be lamented--we must accept the workings of providence. But dogma always has some quality of disappointment about it. We speak in these formal terms because we have not yet seen with our eyes and felt with our hands. And with this disappointment comes an impulse to anger.
It is this anger, this spiritual discontentment, and not merely the mixing of the Church with politics, that explains part of the violence of the controversy witnessed in the early Church. Theological hatred, Hart suggested, may be at some level a reflex of fear, fear that the Gospel, exposed to the corrosion of ordinary time, may be reduced only into history.
Another phenomenon might also be going on: there is something in the pursuit of theology that is a constant frustration of human pride, and thus calls forth ever more assertive expressions of human pride. We are thwarted by the surfeit of truth over the limits of human language. But even more importantly, all our attempts to speak about God are overwhelmed by God’s speaking of Himself in time. It challenges and cancels our customary attempts at meaning, and destroys the human ambition to ascend unaided to the summits of truth. Theology thus carries with it a certain measure of resentment, a resentment toward grace.
It is from this resentment, our unspoken recognition of our inability to gain a true grasp of that of which we speak, that leads to the anger that bursts forth so intemperately in the midst of theological controversy. Controversy must therefore always be carried on in penitence, penitence for our resentment against God.
I have nothing to add to this fascinating and powerful thesis, except the objection that was voiced by several in the Q&A afterward--namely, that Hart’s thesis is perhaps better seen as a paradigm for understanding what is always true about the Christian revelation, than as a historical explanation of how the Church evolved. Indeed, that is more how I have presented it here. But, although he was counseling no return to primitivism, he did seem to claim that the Church was in the beginning characterized by this apocalyptic otherworldiness, in constant expectation of the end of the world, and then only after a century or so realized that it had to settle down and develop doctrine. This obscures the fact that controversy over doctrine and the institutional shape of the Church is present already in the New Testament itself. Nonetheless, with this caveat, I find that Hart’s intuition seems to ring true, and promises to perhaps shed a lot of light on the theological experience.