Review of Peter Blum’s For a Church to Come

For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought. By Peter C. Blum. Herald Press, 2013, 177 pages.

For a Church to Come is a collection of essays by Peter Blum, professor of philosophy and culture at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Rather than simply outline or summarize the contents of this book, I want to engage what I think is at stake in this project. Reflecting on Blum’s book I found the sub-title increasingly suggestive. I wondered where theology might be found in relationship to theory and thought. Blum characterizes postmodern theory in the idea that any form, meaning, or expression cannot be finally or fully known in its totality. When the church attempts to delineate and clarify all of its boundaries and concepts then it has repressed the ambiguous, multiple, and created meaning that comes with human expressions; it has denied the way we influence and are influenced by what the church would call ‘the secular’ world. In this account the church is not so much a messianic community but a community that holds a messianic expectation, or, in more yoderian language (to introduce Anabaptist thought), it is a community of patience.

So, again, where might theology be found? Most of the time what the church means by theology can be clarified as confessional theology, which basically means privileging the knowledge and resources of a particular community (i.e. creeds and confessions of faith) According to Blum’s essays the danger of a binding confessional theology is when it is ‘specially protected’ in its ability to account for God, reality, and practice. This privileging and protecting can keep the church from forming mutual relationships (where the church might actually learn from others). If this is how we understand or practice theology, then I agree with Blum’s subtitle and it is right to leave this sort of theology out of his experiments for a church to come.

Blum’s experiments represent one example of opening our theology to voices outside our confession. To be clear though, these experiments are not aimless speculations thrown out into the void of relativism (as postmodernism can still be caricatured). Blum’s experiments are oriented concretely and particularly. They are, however, not guided by a traditional confessional theology, they are guided rather in the face of the other. Emmanuel Levinas is a central thinker in Blum’s book and it is Levinas’s understanding of the face of the ‘other’ that can both provide orientation for ethics but also openness for the dynamic nature of human experience.

As Blum points out our obligation to (love) the other is infinite, never fulfilled. In a sense this obligation is impossible; impossible for our categories to be complete enough, for our theology to be big enough, for our ethics to be decisive enough. But this awareness does not absolve us from the obligation. These essays are an attempt to honour this obligation. The essays challenge our definition of the family and the boundaries of the church but does not escape into the myth of purity, they break down our theological boundaries but does not succumb to some limp relativism, they acknowledge the pervasiveness of violence but does not forsake the call to peace.

Some questions remain lingering after reading this book. The major question I have is how far we can continue with a traditional or orthodox understanding of God’s transcendence in light of these experiments. Confessional theology usually relies on transcendence (a God beyond us and inaccessible, except for ‘special’ revelation) as a way of securing its boundaries. By employing Levinas Blum is able to still use the language of transcendence but introduce strong elements of immanence (what is important is accessible without ‘special’ revelation from beyond; i.e. in the face of our neighbour). I am concerned Blum is looking to have it both ways and I think the church would be better served to have the implication of these approaches more clearly spelled out. This, however, is not a criticism of the book so much as a picking up of its challenge and questions.

Much of what is within Blum’s book can and should be considered theology. If, however, our theology continues to be given a special status, removed from our engagement with our neighbour, we might do well to set it aside for a while. The question remains whether we would actually allow the face of our neighbour to shape our theology. This indeed remains a question for a church to come.

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7 comments on “Review of Peter Blum’s For a Church to Come

  1. Gerald Ens says:

    At the end of the essay on Yoder and Derrida, Blum writes: “But letting the church be the church is letting the church be visible, and how does one do that both faithfully and patiently? How might we find the level of patience that lets God be God by not trying too hard to MAKE the church be the church?”

    To use your language, this looks to me like an example of Blum looking to both immanence and transcendence to help us think about the faithful and patient church. But I don’t see it as sloppiness or laziness (if that’s a fair characterization of “trying to have it both ways”). It looks to me like he sees an essential and irresolvable tension between that we need to dwell within if we are to begin the task of challenging our definition of family and the boundaries of the church without falling into the myth of purity, breaking down our theological boundaries without succumbing to limp relativism, and acknowledging the pervasiveness of violence (in ourselves) without forsaking the call to peace. I guess I’ve tended to read Blum as deliberately not choosing between transcendence and immanence, but instead trying to point to fruitful ways of dwelling in the tension between the two. I’d also read that as good theology (the Word made flesh); but perhaps that’s where you’d say that we need to get away from theology, either good or bad.

    Along these lines, I’m interested further in the way you pit Blum against confessional theology. I think I see what your getting at, with the way he shows us that the Christian faith should view truthfulness vis-a-vis the other as more important than securing truth, but again I see Blum getting to and arguing for this from a particular faith commitment and community as his use of the term faithfulness testifies (and there’s that tension again). Would you be comfortable contrasting a confessional stance with an ongoing practice of confession of faith? Do you think Blum would like this kind of distinction?

    Hmmm. This was me trying to ask questions of you. There are only two question marks.

  2. No, I don’t think Blum is being lazy or sloppy. One of my major concerns here is the, what I see as, the increasing method of the church towards ‘both/and’. When there are theological conflicts or tensions I routinely hear people or groups finding a way to have it ‘both ways’ so as to avoid what is at stake in the conflict.
    I think Blum’s account is much more nuanced (and fairly persuasive) in his use of transcendence in relation to Levinas, but I think that will be lost on most readers who are not conversant in this area. So what is likely to be taken from is simply the preservation of both transcendence and immanence (as we already conceive it) and I don’t think that will provide the force of critique that I think is necessary for the church open up and dismantle some of its positions.
    With respect to maintaining this tension as ‘good theology’ that is where I again have some concerns. This is part of the work of orthodoxy in thinking that the so-called ‘difficult’ position of holding the tension is to be preferred. What ends up happening is that this posture tends to function as a way of insulating from change or direct critique. Again, because it becomes much easier to ‘find yourself’ within orthodoxy.
    And particularity and testimony, in my mind, are different than how I use ‘confessional’. Perhaps this makes it a bad term (or maybe this means it can be redeemed).
    So as I mentioned in the review these criticisms come alongside a broad agreement with what Blum is doing. My main concern is that the packaging will make it lose the punch that I think it needs.

  3. Gerald Ens says:

    I guess that my opposition to what you describe as a sort of less than optimal packaging comes from the fact that I’ve found Blum to be most challenging and illuminating precisely in his staunch refusal to resolve tensions and his ability to make the unproblematic more complex, by bringing to light the multiple sides of an issue. So, then, I read your concern with his presentation as more of a concern with his project as a whole. In what I quote above, for example, Blum refuses to allow a binary opposition between patience and faithfulness, showing that they’re intimately intertwined, and at the same time wants to bring out a tension between the two that arises precisely from their intertwinement. This is related to the fact that our (receptive) patience in the face of the other is predicated on letting God be God, which simultaneously demands that we practice church faithfully and visibly. But perhaps I’ve been missing what Blum is really saying, maybe because of this immanence-transcendence packaging (I’m not familiar with Levinas except second-hand). Or maybe it’s that Blum would make a better point by focussing only on the dismantling work that he does, without the tensions that I think he thinks are involved with this.

    I can appreciate that “dwelling in tension” etc. may have become a theological cliché that often functions to let people off the hook when it comes to defending their position, but I fail to see how pointing to that necessarily invalidates all calls to live with a “both-and” tension. People who (with a significant stake in conflict) staunchly advocate for one-way tensionless position also demonstrate a marked refusal to engage with critique (e.g., fundamentalism), but that in and of itself does not mean that staunchly embracing one side of a position indicates intellectual cowardice.

    And so, I didn’t mean to employ “good theology” as a way of saying that I’d prefer only to engage with those who see things my way. What I meant is that through my theological studies I’ve come to see this tension (between immanence and transcendence) throughout biblical revelation and am also convinced that such a living, moving tension is absolutely essential to the life a church that would strive to be faithful. So, I’ve come to such (tentative, because in this life always tentative) conclusion, and thereby call theology that wrestles with such tension in ways that I find helpful “good.” It doesn’t mean (I hope not at least) that I won’t ever find anyone with a contrary view interesting, or engaging, or worth learning, or who might actually end up substantially changing how I think.

    I really like the idea of redeeming the term “confessional” (though I’d probably have to experience more of its negative use, as you seem to have, to truly understand what that all entails). Perhaps a project that I’ll get started on!

  4. To clarify and put more to the point, I am just not sure using language of transcendence is helpful in maintaining tensions or paradoxes in theology. The tension must itself be built into the logic and I think that the dominant manner in which ‘transcendence’ is used comes out as a release valve for the tension. I know that we have experienced this differently, but for me ‘thought’ must remain immanent. This does not mean there is not something otherwise than immanent but that our thinking cannot bring that into discourse. This is where Kierkegaard is a great example in at least the attempt to think immanence but remain open to the reality of ‘transcendence’ but I do think he fails in how he attempts his ‘religious’ discourses.
    We seem to agree that ‘transcendence’ must be non-discursive (or do we?) and if so, then this must have more significant consequences for theology. I certainly don’t see my position as resolving or overcoming tensions or mysteries but I hope it helps me to face them in a more forthright manner.
    Not sure if this actually moves the conversation forward at all . . .

  5. Gerald Ens says:

    I do appreciate this response. It does clarify and open some possibilities of thought for me. But…as far as going forwards goes, I’m not quite sure how to respond. I’m not quite sure how you’re using the term non-discursive, but regardless, it probably isn’t your job to educate me on the kind of immanence you’re alluding to, especially in a comment thread devoted to Peter Blum’s recent book. The only engagement I really have with this sort of theology (if I’m reading you right) is some stuff here and there by Gordon Kaufman (and it’s interesting to me that Blum picks Yoder and not Kaufman as his Anabaptist thinker par excellence), so that doesn’t lend itself to the most enlightening conversation along these lines.
    Pretty sure that this does not move the conversation forward…
    Maybe this will be a source that will lend itself to getting picked up and letting us have better conversations in the future.

  6. I am sure we will pick up some of these threads again. It will be interesting to see if there is a sort of Kaufman revival in the future. I have not read enough of him to know if it is worth it but I do see a sort of renewed look at aspects of theological liberalism in the work of Peter Dula.

  7. Gerald Ens says:

    Well then, I look forward to a few good conversations on Dula!

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