I was talking to one of my professors the other day about this theologian who tends towards a sort of “shock and awe” theological style—even the name has a sort of flashy name: Radical Orthodoxy. Granted, the guy is really really really smart and usually right (if you feel up for the challenge, give Theology and Social Theory a shot). But I can’t help but have second thoughts about quickly accepting the new or radical just because it is new and radical. Maybe I’m too much of a conservative—that is, if you want to call Jacques Derrida a conservative.
I totally feel what some of my friends feel when they find something hopeful in the new theologies. When I talk about “new theologies” I am trying to speak broadly enough to capture that impetus of my generation to look for new ways of thinking about the faith given to us by our parent, but that takes the old stuff and transforms it into something new that looks a whole lot different—a sort of transfiguration, I guess. For some of my friends the “new” came to them in the form of the ‘traditional’ (like the Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox churches). For others the new looks more like an ever-expanding web of emerging friendships. And me? Well, I guess I am trying out the Anabaptist tradition. It seems that we all feel something of what Sebastian Moore discerned in his tradition as a catholic neurosis: “The effect of being continually exposed to the truth which is doing one no good is distressing to the soul. There can even result a kind of unbelief, an exhaustion of the spirit, which is all the worse for being parly unconscious” (God is a New Language, p.21). We constantly hear the promises of our faith, but it’s spoken in old accents that inoculate us from the power of the gospel. The old is exhausted and exhausting. So we search for some new ways of articulating and listening to our faith because we don’t want to fall away, while what we keep on hearing from the old is distressing to our souls. A song from my pentecostal past offers the sort of prayer I hear from my friends: “Holy Spirit, breathe on me.” But isn’t there a danger in absolute openness to the new? What if we mistake the fresh movement of the Holy Spirit with the changing spirits of our age, of this cultural moment?
In his now popular book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed his distaste for the language of “movements” of the church because he feared that such a way of thinking about the church gives too much credit to our ability to make things interesting, and may in turn serve to divide Christ’s one church as folks follow what they think is the movement of the Spirit. I think I might join in his concern and add the word “radical.” Even though I can certainly feel the push/pull to find something new, some radical way of living the Christian life that makes us more meaningful, I worry about what else we invite in when we open ourselves for the arrival of the new and exciting without any hesitation, without lingering in the wisdom of the old.
This hesitating openness to the future is the conservatism that Jacques Derrida gives us—he calls it deconstruction: “to criticize, to transform, to open the institution to its own future. The paradox in the instituting moment of an institution is that, at the same time that it starts something new, it also continues somthing, is true to the memory of the past, to a heritage, to something we recieve from the past, from our predecessors…. That is what deconstruction is made of: not the mixture but the tension between memory, fidelity, the preservation of something that has been given to us, and at the same time, heterogeneity, something absolutely new, and a break” (Deconstruction in a Nutshell, p.6). The old is never something we end in the past. Rather, the present is the playground of the past. Our past is never terminated for the sake of the future. Theologically speaking, we would say that the past is not forgotten, rather, it is redeemed (FYI: this is where Miroslav Volf gets hammered in his book Exclusion and Embrace). In the age to come our bodies will be resurrected like Jesus’ body (he is the “first-born from the dead”—I Cor. 15, I think). We will look the same but different, like Jesus did to his disciples when he appeared after his resurrection. All that to say, there is an undeniable continuity between the past, present, and future. And Derrida helps us think about how we are to stay faithful to the past while openning ourselves up to the hope of a future gift, a messianic moment. The hopeful dream of our promised future fuels our patient waiting for the arrival of a surprise of grace, a taste of new life. But Derrida warns us of the dangers of over-anxious anticipation of the new hope that, in turn, renders us defenseless to the possible arrival of a “the phantom of the worst, the [evil] one we have already identified” (The Other Heading, p.18). We remember our past failures to resist the seduction of the evil cultural spirits of ages past and learn how to identify them when they appear again. To read St. Paul through Derrida (there is never a ‘pure’ reading, we always use interpretive frameworks whether we admit it or not), we must use God’s gift of discernment in order to figure out if we are giving ourselves over to the Holy Spirit or evil spirits of this cultural episode (see I Cor. 12, Rom. 6, and others I can’t think of right now). Our dream for the radically new for which we expectantly wait may indeed turn out to be a reappearance of the worst nightmares of our past.
Now, when we consider the new theologies of this generation that hungers for the fresh newness of the movement of God in our moment in history, I don’t think there is an easy dismissal or approval. As Derrida says in his usually opaque way, “We must thus be suspicious of both repetitive memory and the completely other of the absolutely new” ( OH, p.19). We must linger in that fragile space between skepticism of the new and dissatisfaction with the old. If we want to keep hoping and searching for the new life of God for us in Christ’s continual presence with us (Matt.28) through the Holy Spirit (Jn.20), I think we shouldn’t depart from one another and form our own communities with new theologies (is this the sort of thing Paul addresses in I Cor.1?). Rather, I think Christians of this generation (I’m only 25) should join with the wise who are entrusted with the memories of the old and, as the great Anglican theologian and philosopher D. M. MacKinnon said, “go forward, not clinging to external protection but embracing insecurity, and to go forward in hope” (The Stripping of the Altars, p.37). That insecurity is the tenuous position of faithfulness to the past while waiting for the future. Finding stability in the forms of the past blinds us from the blessed newness of the future. And uncontolled desire for the new leaves us open for the possession of the phantoms of the worst. We are left with nothing to hold but eachother as we remember the mercies of God and learn how to wait for new opportunities to taste the joy of the gospel.
Here are a couple wise modern voices I like to listen to. They seem to know what commitment to the church means; they take pains to remember the tradition, yet put to work theologically and pastorally their prayerful hope for the glorious manifestation of the Spirit. Lesslie Newbigin was a Scottish Presbyterian pastor, missionary, and theologian who was appointed bishop of the united Church of South India. Sebastian Moore is a Roman Catholic monk and theologian who dedicates his life to the church as a spiritual director.
Newbigin: “I think it must be frankly admitted that when, in the name of a purer faith or a richer experience, Christians have felt compelled to break with the continuing structure, and have therefore claimed a primacy for faith or experience over order, their children and grandchildren have inherited from them new structures based upon some particular formation of faith or experience which have allowed less spiritual and intellectual freedom than that which the reformers took for granted” (Household of God, p.75).
Moore: “The true reformer is not he who can titillate our jaded palates with novelties that will shock the conventional and rally the discontented to a new orthodoxy. He will bring to our minds things that no one, whatever his theological views, will dare to controvert. He will ask what we think St Paul meant when he said that what proved we were sons of God was the Spirit of God’s Son in our hearts crying Abba Father. He will recall to us the stern and strictly theological claim which our brother makes upon us in the plain teaching of Christ. It is only out of a renewed Christian community that a theology worthy of the name will emerge able to restore that name from its present justly dishonoured position in the minds of men to the honour that properly belongs to it” (God is a New Language, p.153).