January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
June 24, 2010
Over the last several years of studying contemporary
(continental) philosophy and theology and the theology of Augustine, I’ve
noticed several recurring themes, or rather, inversion of themes between
contemporary theological battles and those in which Augustine was
involved. Of course these
inversion only makes sense from a broadly Augustinian point of view (which you
can feel free to contest), but I think noting these inversions may demystify some common differences
and misrepresentations between theologian camps. These
inversions do not function uniformly, and they really have more to do with
Augustine’s opponents and how they have become inverted: the Philosophers (transcendence), Pelagius (virtue),
1) From Transcendence to Immanence:
In the classical milieu, to think the transcendence of God
was natural. But to think the
incarnation, incomprehensible. For
Augustine, it was the pride of the philosophers that kept them from
acknowledging that the Logos took on
flesh. And this pride could only
be healed through humble submission to the truth of the immanent incarnation of
But now there is a general inversion of this among
contemporary (continental) philosophers/theologians. In the wake of Hegel, it is commonplace to affirm the immanence
of God and some form of the incarnation.
But it is the height of foolishness (of onto-theological speculation, of
obscurantist fetishism) to affirm a truly transcendent God, a transcendence from which the incarnation was a true movement
for God rather than necessary moment
in God. This inversion basically sets the contemporary theological agenda such current Augustinians must argue toward transcendence rather than from it.
2) From Virtuous to Fabulous
The Pelagian controversy can be distilled to one question: from whence does virtue come?
For Pelagius, virtue (and its attendant goal of blessedness) is
essentially within human reach, needing only the divine exemplar offered in
Christ showing what God requires, which overcomes the ignorance of humanity . But to the moral ignorance of Pelagius, Augustine also adds
moral weakness, claiming that virtue (and blessedness) is always and everywhere
out of reach for humanity outside of grace.
But now, the actual moral example of Christ in his life,
death, and resurrection is not even literally believed or followed, but rather,
the model of death-resurrection as a mythic vehicle for overcoming capitalist
production, imperial ideology, or the symbolic order itself is all that is
necessary. From Pelagian moralism
without sacrifice we have its inversion in a sacrifice (of false-consciousness)
without moral exemplar (except the abstraction of death). The concrete life of Jesus is excluded from the myth of dying-rising in Christ such that the exemplar only functions as the form itself (dying-rising) without reference to content (practices of Jesus).
3) From Purification to Separation
Lastly, I’ve noticed an inversion regarding what makes one a Donatist. For Augustine,
the Donatists where forsaking the unity of the Church for a sacramental
purity. But the Donatists ended up
degradating the sacraments by subjecting them to sociological (and therefore, human) control which canceled out the divine freedom to work through the human. Augustine, on the side of orthodoxy, refused such a reading of the sacraments and argued for the efficacy of the sacraments as the efficacy of God to work redemption through the human rather than making the divine a prisoner to human purity. In this way Augustine argued for an ecclesiology based in the work of God against the Donatist sectarians.
But now, it seems the charge of Donatist sectarianism is laid at the feet of all those arguing for an ecclesiology which functions like Augustine’s. This comes from two sides.
From some progressive/radical theologians, to argue for a form of orthodoxy based in a robust ecclesiology becomes inherently oppressive and sectarian. For these, Donatist concerns for purification and Augustine’s militant concern for unity join to form an oppressive theological construction (this is the reading of William Connolly). They might say that Augustine and the Donatists were both wrong. But I might counter that this is plausible only when the previous two inversions are in place.
From the other side, many see the return of the language of practices and virtue to be the return of human religion and a sophisticated ‘works righteousness,’ which in their mind is inherently a repetition of the Donatist mistake by making worship a matter of sociology. I believe this second reading of Donatism stems from a failure to fully grasp the nature of the incarnation (union and divine/human), and therefore is related to the first inversion above regarding transcendence and immanence. But it also stems from a confusion of the relation of church practices to the practices of Jesus (that they are indeed related and Christ promises to culture are character through them).
I could go on and speak about forms of Platonism still play the propaedeutic role for theology, but now inverted in an education in materialism, but I will leave off for now.
I’m really just throwing this out there. What do you think? Do you all see similar inversions from patristic theological concerns and now? Do you see these issues differently?
Geoffrey Holsclaw is a co-pastor at Life on the Vine (www.lifeonthevine.org) and a PhD candidate in theology and society at Marquette University. He is an editor for the Church and Postmodern Culture (http://churchandpomo.typepad.com/) and writes at geoffreyholsclaw.net.