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Book Review: Graham Ward, Politics of Discipleship

July 13th, 2011 by isaac · 5 Comments

I wrote a review of Graham Ward’s new book, Politics of Discipleship. I usually very much appreciate his work, and I have learned a lot from his various theological explorations. But this one left me wanting.

The review is in the recent issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review (July, 2011). So I guess you’ll have to track down a hard copy of the journal, if you’re interested. Below is the last part of the review, which gets to the heart of my criticisms:

Ward’s book runs into trouble from the moment he employs, like a number of other theologians currently in vogue, an ontological structure to the universe that shows how God makes a difference—or, to use Ward’s language, how transcendence makes a substantive difference within immanence. Yet, as Herbert McCabe has taught most British theologians of Ward’s generation, “God makes no difference to the universe.” “God cannot be outside, or alongside, what he has made.” God is not a system—and to posit an “outside” or “exterior” or “beyond,” to use Ward’s language, is still to create a system, a conceptual apparatus that explains God’s difference to the world. But McCabe is adamant that God cannot be part of a way to order or explain a cosmology. Arguing from within the thought of Thomas Aquinas, McCabe notes: “God does not come within the scope of our interpretation of the world.” Thomas “never slips into talking of God as an element…we identify as part of our intelligible universe, as an explanation of anything.” Unlike Ward’s theories of the power of transcendence to sway the world in the right direction, McCabe explains how “the power of God is exercised not in manipulating and interfering with things but in letting them be.” That all of creation is dependent on God’s power does not add anything to our knowledge about the nature of things. There is no such thing as a “transcendent” perspective that provides special knowledge about the way the world works. “Coming to know that the universe is dependent on God does not in fact tell us anything about the character of the universe,” writes McCabe, “If we think we can it is only because we have smuggled something extra into our concept of God.” In McCabe’s terms, Ward tries to smuggle foreign notions of transcendence into his concept of God. The danger with McCabe’s Thomist account of God, someone like Ward would argue, is that the wind is taken out of the sails of Christian discipleship in the political mode. But McCabe thinks a proper doctrine of God has everything to do with liberating Christians to change the present order of life. For one thing, in opposition to Ward’s vision, it means that the struggle against global capitalism is fought alongside postmodern immanentists and with the same tools of resistance that they use, instead of positioning them as part of the problem. Contrary to the ontology Ward creates, conceptions of transcendence do not provide special political tools. God is not an extra tool.

But without transcendence do Christians have anything to add to the conversation about human liberation from under the reductive materialism of global capitalism? That seems to be the anxiety at the heart of Ward’s book. Does not the gospel make a difference? McCabe provides an answer:

God is not part of the world, God is the unfathomable mystery of love by which the world is; there are no gods, there is only this love. And when we preach the gospel in these terms…our hearers will indeed always be puzzled, perhaps especially our Christian hearers will be puzzled. They will say: Is this what the Church teaches? Where is the religion, where is the piety, where are the gods? Where is the special language of Church things? If we speak as the Spirit has given us utterance our hearers will be bewildered because each will hear us speaking in his own language the wonderful things of God.

Like a nomad, the gospel makes its home anywhere. The Spinozian language of immanence is, perhaps, as good as any other. But we do not know until we try to speak in it. We are still waiting for theologians to help us learn that language. Judging from his most recent contribution, Ward is not one of them.

Tags: reading corner · theology

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Book Review: Graham Ward, Politics of Discipleship « Discipleship « Church Leadership // Jul 13, 2011 at 10:53 pm

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  • 2 Lyndon // Jul 14, 2011 at 7:51 am

    Good words, Issac. Your use of McCabe to hold Ward theologically accountable is instructive and persuasive. I will have to look for the full review.
    I remember Brian Davies saying that we will muddle transcendence everytime we try and give an account of ‘esse’ (being) as a quality (a ‘something’) that connects creation to Creator, rather than the ‘to-be-ness’ of an existing thing. I like Burrell in how we speaks of God as the ‘to-be’ of being. We can’t sneek ‘esse’ into an ontology and come out with a free Creator.

  • 3 isaac // Jul 14, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Thanks, Lyndon, for the kind words. I like what you’re saying about Davies and Burrell.

    I’ll email you a copy of the review.

  • 4 david cl driedger // Jul 19, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Hey Isaac. Good to read something other than a sermon forward! :)
    I have also really appreciated Ward’s earlier works. I was also less engaged with this last work though my response would not have been nearly so sophisticated as this. You would think a final turn towards theocracy would offer quite a lightening rod for the project of discipleship but his final section and reading of monarchy from the OT somehow fell flat. It left me thinking that I would have to give it another read given my earlier appreciation.
    Given the beginning and end of his book he seemed to want to ‘out’ any sort of middle ground and create a movement towards something more decisive, but, again, I was not really getting it.
    In light of your own reflections this would have been my own most recent thoughts on it.
    Hope all is well.

  • 5 isaac // Jul 20, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    David, thanks for commenting! I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who found something amiss with Ward’s new book. (I’ll email you the full review)

    I read your post. I think you make a really good point. I especially like this line: “It is a conviction or at least present acknowledgement that if I hope to maintain the sort of political and social orientation that I see described in the biblical witness I must also nurture an internal orientation that will strip ideological power.” That seems spot on.