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.