John Milbank’s Nazarene Heritage

The Church of the Nazarene (CoN) arose  out of the American Holiness Movement, and the Anglo-Catholic British theologian, John Milbank, has roots in it. I find this to be a pretty interesting fact in itself. I imagine the young John Milbank (who in my mind looks exactly the way he does now, only shorter), sitting cross-armed at a revival service while ladies with big hair and no jewelry run up and down the aisle shouting, “Glory!”  Continue reading John Milbank’s Nazarene Heritage

The Kingdoms of God and Constantine

So now I am going to sum up Part II of Orthodoxy without Empire. Last time I talked about the church-culture limen and two inadequate ways of relating to it. In Part II, I argue that a more coherent account of this limen can actually be found in the rubble of the Byzantine Empire. I know that sounds counterintuitive when you consider that one of the options I criticize is a kind of neo-imperialism, but hear me out, because I think what I am working toward is actually an anti-imperialistic. It’s this socio-political ideal called symphonia.

Continue reading The Kingdoms of God and Constantine

The Funny Thing About Limens…

This post started with me trying to sum up Part 2, but then it turned into one great big digression, which made me realize that I needed to spend a bit more time talking about why I feel the need to criticize Milbank and Hauerwas, and why I really don’t want to.

Read this!
Read this!

Here is the thing about Milbank and Hauerwas: I like them! I want to agree with them! The trouble is that, when it comes to Hauerwas, the communities he describes don’t actually seem to exist. The narrative power of the tradition does not work the way he says it does, even granting the imperfections inherent in a fallen world. As for Milbank, I actually find his theology a bit too liberal. This is an insight I owe to Paul DeHart’s book Trial of the Witnesses. (Full disclosure: Prof. DeHart was on my dissertation committee, he is a hardass of a teacher in the best way, and one of the most capable readers I have ever met.) The book is more or less about how everybody is misreading Lindbeck. One takeaway is that Lindbeck is actually pretty liberal because what is “real” is less important than what we believe is real. (His point is much more nuanced than that, but what do you expect? This is a blog.) That is what I get from Milbank. Everything seems to boil down to the stories that you tell, which to me seems just a step to the right of somebody like Paul Tillich, who subordinates the truth of narratives to the meaning we find in them. Continue reading The Funny Thing About Limens…

Orthodoxy Without Empire

Orthodoxy Without Empire is my forthcoming book from Wipf & Stock Publishers. I signed on the dotted line the other day. I have spent a couple of years plugging away at the proposal, trying to figure out whether I wanted it to be more specialized or popular. Then I realized that what I really wanted it to be was done.

Stanley Hauerwas Duke University Photography© Chris Hildreth #0032
Stanley Hauerwas

This book engages the work of two contemporary theologians – John Milbank and Stanely Hauerwas – to make a point about the way the church should engage secular culture. The two of them establish a kind of conceptual range within what I call “postliberal ecclesiology.” Postliberalism refers to the work of George Lindbeck, who wrote what he described as an “ad hoc” reflection on ecumenical theology in which he suggested we think about doctrines like we think about languages. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein (or a reading of Wittgenstein), Lindbeck said that it is disingenuous to see doctrines as human attempts to express an inexpressible experience (the divine). Rather, they are the very basis by which we can have any experiences at all.

John Milbank
John Milbank

There is a lot more I could say about the way Lindbeck was received and (I think) misinterpreted, but my point for now is that Milbank and Hauerwas both of them deploy the idea of intratextuality to draw a clear boundary around the church, to secure its identity from secular culture.

I argue that this is disingenuous. The problem with counterposing the church to the secular is that it does not fully account for all the ways the church engages in, and supports, the secular. We can see how this is the case if we stop thinking of the church as an institution and instead think about it as its people. We are the church, and we shop, vote, and pay our taxes. We are constantly providing ammunition to that which is supposed to be our enemy. I should point out that this is something Milbank and Hauerwas acknowledge as being somewhat inevitable, but my point is that their ecclesiologies cannot actually account for this problem. So the only thing we can do is shrug our shoulders and carry on as if we are everything is fine. To wit, we say we are being faithful to Christ, that we are a peculiar people or “resident aliens” (to invoke one of Hauerwas’s most famous books), when it is kind of hard to tell us apart from everybody else.

Looking back at what I just wrote, I realize I did not intend to say all of that in this post. Basically, I have summed up Part 1. So I guess this post is going to become a three-parter.

I will conclude by saying one more word about what I intend this book to be, which is what I started out trying to say in the first place. I am going to try to stand in two worlds at once. That is why I picked a couple of widely known foils, but even if you do not know who Hauerwas and Milbank are, hopefully you can follow the argument I just made. That’s what I mean by standing in two worlds. I will engage in academic debates, but I am going to try to do it in a way that is readable and accessible to a wide audience, because that is kind of what I think theology is supposed to do. Theology is a work of the church. An academic theologian (like me) should always try to write for the church, which of course means that we also write with the church. Or at least we should try to. Works of academic theology are no good if they can only be read by academics. The point is to make a difference by making us think, and I think we need to change the way we think about this thing we call “the secular.” Maybe it is not “the enemy.” Maybe there is a way in which it is actually an outworking of the Holy Spirit. But now I am getting into Part 2.