Hearing the Truth: The Church’s Bonds as Self-Assertion or Communion?

D. Stephen Long

What constitutes our bonds as a church? Is it a truth heard and received in contemplation or an assertion of will, a purely voluntary commitment? I think it should now be relatively uncontroversial that the latter option—the assertion of will—constitutes the bonds of the modern political subject. It relativizes all claims to truth because truths are assumed too dangerous as political bonds. They will hide the fact that every such claim is nothing but the assertion of some body, or some culture’s will to power. To simply be truthful about this, as Nietzsche taught, is to move forward politically. Herein lies the conundrum. How can we be “truthful” about the fact that our political bonds are not based on truth but the assertion of will? This odd dogma that constitutes a modern political subject entails, in that very constitution, that we uncritically obey this dogma. We fail to recognize that we have already “heard” a teaching (a doctrine) that we take to be true and in that act of hearing obey it.

Our emphasis on action, on “speaking truth to power,” can overlook this important condition for our speech. We cannot speak if we do not first hear the truth. And if we are inattentive to what we hear, we will speak dogmas that we fail to recognize as such, resulting in irrationality. R.R. Reno provides an example by citing an editorial a Protestant pastor published, arguing that the cause of violence in our world is due to religious people who claim to know the truth. Reno wrote “Universal claims on behalf of faith (the minister was scrupulous to include in this camp claims about salvation in Christ alone) lead to hatred, bigotry, and oppression. Dogmatism and the dogmatic personality are at the root of our problems. The way toward peace and cooperation, he concluded, requires us to realize that our religious faith is culturally conditioned and relative to our unique personal needs” (“Theology’s Continental Captivity,” First Things 2006]).

The irony of this all too common critique of religious truth is that it is itself based on a dogmatic and universal claim to truth. It is universally true that universal claims to truth lead to violence. But now this dogma is somehow immune from the adverse effects other’s dogmatic claims to truth universally produce. The result is political irrationality. We cannot query whether the pastor’s claims are true. By claiming that the political problems with others is that they think they know the truth, he has claimed an odd kind of moral superiority: “my way of life is preferable because I do not make dogmatic claims for truth, and that is the truth.” Why then speak at all, for is it not the case that every utterance, every use of language, assumes the tacit background of truth-telling? In other words, when anyone speaks or writes, we assume such a person is telling us the truth. Otherwise, communication would be impossible. Even the ability to lie assumes such basic truthfulness. When, then, someone accuses another of contributing to violence because one thinks that what one says is true, we must ask the critical question, what is the basis for such an assertion? If it is not true, then it is pure assertion.

This unquestioned dogmatic commitment to the modern political subject is irrational and prevents an adequate analysis of power in the life of the contemporary church. Rowan Williams recognized well the problem when he wrote “To the extent that popular liberal and pluralist thought assumes with blithe unawareness a basic model of meaningful action in terms of assertion, it assumes a final social unintelligibility, and ultimate inability to make sense of each other’s actions (which involves understanding so as to query and re-express)—and thus raises the specter of the purest fascism, an uncriticizable exercise of social power in the name of a supposed corporate assertion (“Introduction,” in Theology and the Political: The New Debate [ed. C. Davis, J. Milbank and S. Zizek; Duke University Press, 2005] 2).

A politics incapable of giving reasons, and reasons that we presume are true, will only be able to create social bonds through the assertion of will. Eventually, such a politics may catch up with us; it may become what it claims to be. It raises the “specter of the purest fascism.”

If Williams is correct, then the question before us is how to subordinate power to truth without unwittingly using truth as a means of self-assertion. We find some help here in an odd place, in the work of the atheist philosopher A. Badiou, who finds in Paul’s conversion the kind of “philosophy” necessary to overcome the prevailing “ethical ideology” that always subordinates truth to an exercise of will. For Badiou, the language of “diversity,” “the other,” and “inclusivity” will not create true political bonds, because this language requires that our political bonds are grounded in evil. We must first be victims who need protection before we can be political agents. Then rights are granted to protect us from the potential violence inflicted upon us by someone else’s truth. But all that will then bind us together is the assertion of a right against others, and against truth. As an alternative to this Badiou seeks a politics where the modern political problem is not recognizing the other, but “recognizing the same” (Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. P. Hallward [Verso, 2001] 25-27). For this we need a strong account of truth and a fidelity to an event that will not fit into the prevailing ethical ideology.

Badiou points toward a politics of fidelity, but cannot deliver. He rightly notes that the modern political subject assumes the priority of evil and he attempts to recover Plato’s conception of the true, but then he denies it can ever be known. Only its possibility, not actuality, will help us subordinate power to truth and avoid the negative consequences of politics as self-assertion. If “meaningful action” is to be something other than assertion of will, it will require more than this. We must first hear and receive something true as the condition for a truthful speech. If what is true cannot be heard, then no conditions for such meaningful action can be found. Perhaps Protestantism shares Badiou’s dilemma? Can it affirm a truth or must it be consigned to individual or corporate self-assertion against any such claims?

In 1928 an important conversation took place between A. von Harnack and E. Peterson, a protestant theologian who soon converted to Catholicism because he did not find in Protestantism the possibility of obedience to (hearing) anything other than one’s own subjectivity. Harnack and Peterson argued over the nature of the church, dogmatic authority, and obedience. Peterson wrote to Harnack “Without any dogmatic authority, however, there can no longer be any church, and even worse, without such authority the church will be utterly ineffective…. What will be left is merely non-binding, general moral parenesis…I can see quite clearly that this will rob the Protestant church of all influence; indeed it will force the church to give up itself. The church ceases to be a ‘public’ entity once it no longer commits itself to a dogmatic position” (cited in R. Hütter, Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice [Eerdmans, 1999] 6).

Harnack agreed with much of what Peterson argued, but whereas Peterson saw this as a cause for lamentation, Harnack saw it as a cause of celebration. Harnack wrote “I do not know what will become of the Protestant churches, but as you rightly suppose, I can only welcome the development that leads increasingly to independence and to a pure association based on conviction in the sense of Quakerism and Congregationalism…. We will find ways and means without ecclesiastical absolutism [only in the living soul does absolutism have a place]. Of course, we are still living to a considerable extent from the remnants of the institution of the Catholic church around us, as it were from the aroma of an empty bottle…. Let us just not become faint-hearted and reactionary and start yearning for the fleshpots of Egypt again. They are gone for good—unless, of course, we turn around and head back to Egypt” (8).

Harnack offers us the alternative of either voluntary associations or ecclesiastical absolutism. Any church based on a dogmatic authority that produces a common life would be a form of “absolutism.” But if Williams and Badiou are correct, Harnack failed to see something significant. Any church that cannot give truthful reasons for its common life will only be able to do so through the assertion of will, and that tempts us to the “purest facism.” Harnack misidentified the source of ecclesial absolutism. Nevertheless, for Harnack, the only way forward was with the Protestant principle where the church was based not on a dogma heard and received but on an association of wills.

This is precisely what worried Peterson, for he thought that without some dogmatic authority to provide for the common life some other context would fill the vacuum. The loss of an explicit dogmatic authority leads inevitably to “culture Protestantism” where the church will either be dependent upon the state or some other cultural context for its intelligibility. The question is not so much whether some dogmatic authority will provide for a common life, but which one will do so. For Peterson a sign that the church has lost its proper dogmatic authority and been rendered intelligible by the culture at large is when all that the church has to offer the world is moral teaching—the church becomes moralistic, offering something as ineffectual and confused as “social justice.”

Of course, Harnack’s cultural Protestantism was not the only option for Protestant theologians to pursue. As Hütter reminds us, Barth and Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Troeltsch-Harnack acceptance of cultural Protestantism offered an alternative. Bonhoeffer recognized the very Protestant problem Peterson raised. He wrote, “It is the question whether after separation from papal authority and worldly authority in the church, an authority can be established in the church and grounded solely on the word and on confession. If such authority is not possible, then the last possibility for the Protestant church has passed by; then there really is only a return to Rome or to the state church or the path to isolation, to the ‘protest’ of genuine Protestantism against false authorities” (13). Bonhoeffer identifies the Protestant problem; that is, without some notion of dogmatic authority providing a common life then the only options for the Protestant church are siding with the power that is the nation-state or the incessant, endless “protest against” that simply perpetuates a reactive church that does not stand for anything constructive. Its identity is only discovered in what it opposes, which is what Badiou identifies as our prevailing “ethical ideology.”

Is then our only option to follow Peterson (and Hütter and many other of our finest Protestant and Methodist theologians) back to Rome? There are good reasons not to do so. Individual conversions such as Peterson and J.H. Newman’s are not what we need, even though they can be respected and affirmed. For better or worse God has seen fit to give us this Wesleyan tradition. Our task is to stand within it, be obedient to it, in hopes that this obedience will itself contribute to the church’s unity. But this will mean we must learn from the critiques that Williams, Badiou, Peterson, and Bonhoeffer put forth. I do not know what, or if anything, will bind modern nation states together in the future, but for the church’s life those bonds must be forged in communion. To use communion as a form of protest, now seemingly a tradition at General Conference and elsewhere, is an obvious symptom of the prevailing ethical ideology no matter how just the cause. Can we create ecclesial bonds based on something other than the mere assertion of will?

The first principle for doing so is that we must refuse to use force, violence, and coercion with each other. That does not rule out the possibility of church trials; they can even be useful. But it does mean that we cannot sue one another in civil court—as the apostle Paul commanded against. Yet it is doubtful that church trials will renew the church. They are simply a symptom of what is wrong and we must get to the root cause. In order to do that, we must put in place the practices that will make for a common life: a common liturgy, morality, and doctrine.

If we are to have a common life, we must begin by not treating the worship life of the church as a matter of individual preference that seeks to meet people’s needs. To treat worship as a consumable commodity for individuals to choose based on likes or dislikes is to shape our common life solely by self-assertion. Churches should show their common bonds through identical liturgies. Bishops should ensure this, not through force, but through proper teaching, through the “practical knowledge” to explain and interpret these practices such that the clergy will be compelled by the beauty of our common liturgy. This will entail a new role for the episcopacy for our crisis of leadership is first and foremost an intellectual crisis. Our leaders lack an articulacy that would compel by the beauty of our doctrines and liturgy.

Once we have in place a common worship, then we will also need a common way of life. This will be best accomplished by doing away with the confused and incoherent document known as the Social Principles altogether. Instead we should reclaim and emphasize our tradition of the General Rules, which will need to be constantly worked on and revised to assist the Methodist to discern the times in which we live. We will need to recover some teaching authority in the church to help us develop these general rules for our common life together and they will need to be used as part of the catechetical process for new members.

Only after we have developed a common worship and moral life will we then be able to address the thoroughgoing fragmentation of our theological teaching. As a theologian in the The United Methodist Church, I have few resources to draw upon to set forth the common teaching of our church. Of course the model of the university and seminary as a marketplace of ideas has greatly harmed our common life. It has made us susceptible to every new trend that educational theorists decide we need. Thus the amount of time seminarians have to hear the language of the Christian faith—to read Bible, church history, and theology—has been vastly diminished by all the modern disciplines that the seminaries are now forced to teach (e.g., ethics, psychology, sociology, organizational theory, anthropology, administration, etc.). These disciplines now define the curriculum into which we are forming (a)theological teachers. When every pastor knows his or her Myers-Briggs test score but only one in one hundred can explain in a compelling way the Chalcedonian definition, it should come as no surprise then that we face an intellectual crisis. If “to obey” is first to hear well—to listen to those who knew, and know how to live well the Christian life and share in their “practical wisdom”—then the biblical and theological illiteracy of our clergy constitutes our most pressing crisis that contributes to our bonds as nothing more than self-assertion. How can we hear if nothing substantively true about God is being said? But God is present to us in the Word and sacrament. Communion requires first hearing this voice or at least being attentive to those who hear it best.

Posted Nov 01, 2008