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.

What I truly love about the ecclesiologies of Milbank and Hauerwas is that they really let me know what it means to be a Christian. That is why I want to agree with them. For a while, I did. One of the first papers I wrote at Vanderbilt was about how great Lindbeck was. I was a fan of Milbank and Hauerwas for several years, mostly because they talk about the church so much. But, like I said earlier, what they say it means to be a Christian contradicts the way Christians actually have to live. This strikes me as an aporia big enough to drive a bus through. Maybe they are right. Maybe the secular does basically turn us all into apostates who talk a good game about our high ecclesiologies whilst invariably offering pinches of incense to the glory of Caesar, but I don’t think so. I think the problem is in the way they think about the way the church actually relates to culture. I call this boundary the “church-culture limen.”

Exactly how wide is a state line?
Exactly how wide is a state line?

The way that I use that term is actually pretty important. So let me talk about it some more. “Limen” is a funny word. It can mean “boundary” (like a wall) but also “threshold” (like a point of entry). In psychology, the term is used to describe two stimuli that cannot be clearly distinguished from each other. This may be a bad analogy (psychologists are invited to correct me), but I think of it like the difference between a tickle and a sneeze. When a feather hits my nose, I experience both sensations at once. I know there is a difference between the two, but I cannot tell fur sure if I find it enjoyable (the tickle) or uncomfortable (the oncoming sneeze). Basically, “limen” refers to an ambiguous boundary. We recognize a real difference between spaces that we cannot properly distinguish. I think the church and the secular are like that. There is ambiguity built into their relationship. There always has been.

The first line of Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory is, “Once there was no secular.” That is honest-to-God one of the sexiest opening lines any book anywhere. It is fantastic! But it is a bit deceiving. Milbank’s larger point is that we need to look at the secular like the early church looked at paganism (I know this could be more nuanced but, again…blog!). The secular is not neutral territory where different traditions can use the same language to talk to each other. The secular itself is a different tradition. We can only enter it by chucking the sacred. The secular competes with the sacred for dominion over our lives, changing the way that we think and act. The secular is a heresy.

The problem with this approach is that it makes the boundary between the church and culture too clear-cut: the secular is one kind of culture, the church another. Milbank is right that the secular is definitely not neutral territory, but that does not mean that it is hostile either. When I look at the early church, I see multiple communities that were uniquely shaped by the exigencies of their own cultures. The church in North Africa is different from Rome, different from Ravenna, different from Antioch, and so on. Paul, in the Bible, even struggled to try to advise the church about how to engage their public. In Roman society, idols were everywhere. Thus in 1 Corinthians, he tells Christians that idols are “nothing” (8:4). Then a few lines later he backpedals and calls them “demons” (10:20). In one chapter, Christians could consume meat offered to idols were it not for the fact that less enlightened believers might get confused by the whole thing (8:10), and in another chapter they must never eat idol meat because that would be blasphemy against the Eucharist (10:21). My point is, once there was a secular insofar as the church struggled to parse how the presence of the kingdom among them should make them different than their surrounding cultures.

I see this issue at the heart of Milbank and Hauerwas’s ecclesiologies. They seem to be looking for a way to secure the identity of the church. That is why I was drawn to them for a number of years. I remember once, when it was one of the first times I had beers with some folks who would become my good friends and mentors through grad school, I was asked, “What do you want from the church?” We were having a conversation about political theology, so really the question was about what I want from the church in public life. My response was, “Bishops who kick ass.” I wanted a church that could be prophetic, that could bear witness against unjust wars (i.e. pretty much all of them), oppressive markets, human rights abuses, etc. I still want that. The problem was in the way that I wanted it. I wanted a church that knew for sure where it ended and the world began. But, like I said, I just don’t think things work that way. Sure, I still want bishops who kick ass. That is why I love Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew. What the Bishop of Rome did at the wall in Israel was just perfect, and His All Holiness (the “Green Patriarch”) is strongly committed to environmental issues and inter-religious dialog. I wish more pastors were like that. But the fact that Pope and Patriarch (for instance) have numerous critics within their own jurisdictions illustrates the identity problem I am referring to. Is the Pope a “true” Catholic? Is the Patriarch truly Orthodox? Is he more Orthodox than, say, a Greek man who thinks the only good Muslim is a dead one? (Yes, but that’s not my point.) Some popes and patriarchs suck. Royally! They are terrible. So who gets to decide which are the good ones and which are the bad ones? Academic theologians? God help us all!

It is this ambiguity that I try to account for. I do not try to answer it, but I highlight it. The problem with stressing the visible church the way postliberal ecclesiology does is that our faith becomes incredulous. What is worse, it risks the church being corrupt. Nothing breeds lust for power like certainty of the truth. Postliberal ecclesiology reminds me a bit of Donatism in that way. Sure, the movement was political from the beginning, but for a while one could argue they had a defensible claim to being the church of the apostles, the church of the persecuted (I am not saying they did, only that it was a reasonable argument). That is, until they started sending out violent mobs to maim and murder Catholics wherever they could find them. That is ultimately why I cannot be postliberal. It does not account for the limen. It does not account for the fact that the identity of the church comes to it from the kingdom of God, so it is never certain. We are still – always! –figuring out what we are.

I think that we do not figure out what we are against the world. The kingdom of God is not the property of the church. The kingdom of God is the age of the Spirit, the Holy wind which “blows where it wishes” (John 3:8). The kingdom of God is universal. I think that means we need to take a more open and generous attitude toward the secular. It is not pagan. It may not even be heresy. Or, if it is, then we should remember something Sergei Bulgakov pointed out in “By Jacob’s Well.” Most Christians are guilty of some heresy (just ask someone to explain the trinity) because the truth is not yet fully present. Christ is ascended into heaven. The church occupies the absence. We live by the absence of certainty. That is what faith is. The line between heresy and truth is pretty ambiguous too.

4 thoughts on “The Funny Thing About Limens…”

  1. Thanks, David. I shot you two requests. I botched your email address on the first one. Maybe one of them will eventually show up in your mailbox.

  2. Hi David,
    Thanks for your reflections here. I’ll try to track down DeHart’s book.

    Is the Bulgakov article actually titled “By Jacob’s Well?” I happened to find that article online –

    I found an article called “Still By Jacob’s Well,” but that was written by Fr Michael Plekon.

    I like Hauerwas quite a bit, if only for sheer brio. He also makes me think like a theologian. His recent reflections on the Theotokos and learning how to tell time astounded me —



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