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.
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.
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.